When the Current tracked down Eric Alva, he’d just returned from a skiing vacation. There’s nothing remarkable about that fact, until you consider that Alva’s right leg was amputated nearly six years ago.
Alva, 38, served in the U.S. Marines for 13 years, including a stint in Somalia. On March 21, 2003, he became the first U.S. service member to be injured in Iraq when he stepped on a land mine, breaking his right arm and incurring severe damage to his right leg.
A San Antonio native, Alva has a unique perspective as a decorated combat veteran who is openly gay, and served long enough to observe the military both before and after its Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy took effect. Over the last two years, Alva has been an outspoken crusader for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a campaign he took to the U.S. House of Representatives last July.
Alva will speak about this issue at the Central Library Auditorium at 2:30 p.m. Saturday,
Did your fellow Marines ever ask about your sexual preference, and did you have friends in the military with whom you were able to come out?
I would eventually tell my friends who worked close to me. We would kind of bond and they would start asking personal questions like, “How come you never go out?” After I knew I could trust them, I would tell them and they’d say, “I kind of figured that.”
Did you have concerns about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy? How worried were you about the possibility that you could be thrown out of the military at any time?
I really wasn’t. I don’t know why, because it became kind of natural that once I told someone, I would have people ask that person, or that person would confide to his wife. Living in base housing, they would know that kind of gossip. After a while, people would know, but they were respectful and used to it.
I think what they saw was that I was doing my job. Not to sound immodest, but I was pretty much a stellar Marine — I was a poster Marine. So people respected me.
During that time, did you meet anyone else in the Marines that you knew to be gay?
If it happened, it was just by chance. But that was pretty seldom.
What kind of response did you get when you publicly came out?
The response was overwhelmingly positive. Even people who I served with in my first tour of duty were very friendly and respectful. They’d say things like, “Hey, I had no idea, but you’re still the same person, and I respect you.” There was very little opposition, just a handful of people that I had served with, or veterans’ groups. But it turned out positive. I received letters from all over the world, from people who’d heard the story. It was really good.
When Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was introduced in 1993, there were three sharply different views on it. Hardliners said that allowing gays in the military would be bad for morale. On the other side, those sympathetic to the LGBT cause complained that the policy restricted the rights of gays and lesbians in the military. In the middle, you had President Clinton, who apparently believed that this would be a way to ease the transition toward a military policy that would eventually offer full civil-rights protections for gays.
Do you think that cautious, compromise approach made sense initially?
I don’t think Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a mistake at the time. Back in ’93, I don’t think people would have been as accepting and tolerant as they are now. We’ve seen a
dramatic change in the military, and with the general public.
A few months ago, a Washington Post-ABC poll found that 75 percent of the American public even favor allowing gay men and women in the military. Back in ’93, we didn’t have that. We’ve had a lot of change, even the election of the first African-American president.
I think what people are realizing now more than ever is that we have to let people be who they are, respect who they are. That’s the nature of this country. That’s what we were fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan, letting people be who they are.
Back in ’93, it was a good effort. A lot of people did feel kind of betrayed by President Clinton, but if it had gone to the full accepting of gays in the military, I don’t think people would have been as accepting as they are today.
Would you say that it gave military leaders time to get comfortable with the idea, to the point where we can now take the next step?
What we have to realize is that generations have changed since then. I go all over the country to all these colleges and universities, to speak to gay organizations. I go to Our Lady of the Lake, and we have our first gay-straight alliance group `at` a Catholic university. Incarnate Word just started theirs this year. So we’re seeing changes even in educational institutions. Now even in high school, you’re starting to have these groups for people, just like any extracurricular activity. But what I think it’s teaching other people is that the captain of the football team can be gay or the president of the student body can be gay. So when people join the military, they’ve already been tolerant of these organizations and friends and relatives that they know to be gay. They think, “What’s the big deal?”
You were in the Marines before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Did you notice any difference in military procedures after it took effect?
No. The only change that happened was that people weren’t allowed to be questioned on their applications anymore. On my application, they asked if I’d ever had sex with someone of the same sex, or if I was a homosexual or a bisexual. If I’d written “yes,” I would have been automatically disqualified. So I lied.
In 1993, all the applications were changed. But otherwise, you really didn’t see any changes. If someone was suspected of being gay, of course they would still do their little witch-hunts, kind of quietly, under the table.
What you saw was that there was more and more people out at the clubs or at gay-pride parades. I remember I was on a helicopter squad and we had a female crew member, and she shaved her head and had a flat-top. Everybody knew, and some people made snide jokes if they didn’t know how cool she was, but you started to see more tolerance.
How do you think Barack Obama will handle the issue of gays in the military?
I have total optimism about this. It’s not up to him, it’s up to Congress, but I have no doubt that if a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell reaches his desk, he’ll sign it. •
2:30pm Sat, Jan 17