05 Jul

Wounded ex-Marine now fighting a two-front war

Now he advocates for gays to serve openly in the armed forces, a battle that heated up since a recent Supreme Court decision.

Five Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals and one commendation medal.

By Sig Christenson – Express-News


Eric Alva lived and breathed the Marine Corps for 13 years. Then he earned a dubious slice of American history by becoming the first GI injured in the Iraq invasion in 2003. He stepped on a mine three hours after rolling into Iraq, breaking both legs, suffering a badly mangled right arm and being filled with shrapnel from torso to his legs.

The picture-perfect Marine, who later lost part of his right leg and still carries 27 pieces of shrapnel, has evolved from a war hero photographed with President George W. Bush to one of the nation’s prominent gay activists after coming out on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Feb. 27, 2007.

Now he advocates for gays to serve openly in the armed forces, a battle that heated up since a recent Supreme Court decision.

He marked July 4th by participating in San Antonio’s Gay Pride parade and has spoken on dozens of college campuses. For him, a true Independence Day would see gays, lesbians and bisexuals allowed to openly serve in the armed forces — to be treated with the same dignity and respect of their straight comrades, rather than hiding in plain sight.

Alva, a 38-year-old San Antonio native, finds himself fighting a two-front war — one to maintain his health, and the other for gays who still conceal the truth about their sexual orientation from comrades and commanders.

He’s got a home and devoted partner, but the war never is far away.

There are days when he still feels his lost leg — “phantom pain,” it’s called. At night, Alva dreams of Iraq. The convoy rolls across an endless desert, clouds of sickly yellow sand in its wake. He walks in his uniform, prosthesis on.

Sleep is fitful.

“There is no denying the fact that I suffer from (post traumatic stress disorder). I have such anger in me,” said Alva, who ended his Marine Corps career with five Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals and one commendation medal.

The high court struck down a former soldier’s challenge to the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that was crafted as a compromise between pro-and anti-gay forces in 1993. President Obama, who pledged in his campaign to let gays openly serve, has deferred his promise.

Alva and others liken the law to the injustice of a once-segregated military. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates, referring to President Truman’s 1948 integration order, said last April at the Army War College that open gay service “is something that needs to be done very, very carefully” to avoid “problems that might be associated with it.”

Gay-rights advocates counter that the law has forced 13,000 troops out of uniform and driven countless others to quit after leading double lives. They’ve long waited for Obama, or someone like him, to take up the cause.

“I still remain hopeful that the president is going to act on and keep his promise,” said Aubrey Sarvis of Service Members Legal Defense Network, a gay advocacy group. “Congress passed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ Congress owns it and Congress needs to repeal it.”

Texas’ two Republican senators and the San Antonio congressional delegation, with the exception of Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, favor leaving the law as it is. Gonzalez backs open gay service and co-sponsored the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal the policy.

“I do not believe it’s been destructive,” Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, said of the policy. “I think it has served a formative purpose, in other words, to get us to the next stage and that is where we are today. And that is recognizing that a homosexual can serve in a capacity of a soldier, sailor or airmen.”

In some ways, Alva has been at war a long time. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals often come to terms with their orientation in high school, and that was true for him. The knowledge that he wasn’t attracted to women came while he was a student at Southwest High School.

Joining the Marines was a natural step. He was the son of a Vietnam veteran. His grandfather fought in World War II and Korea.

A year after graduation, Alva went to a local recruiting station and signed up. In those days, before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ the Defense Department asked every recruit about their sexual orientation.

That was the first of many times he violated an integrity code that requires Marines to tell the truth.

“I didn’t think of it necessarily as lying. I thought of it as sacrifice I was willing to give up my life, or at least my happiness, so I could serve my country.”

At first, he didn’t act on his sexual orientation. But eventually he met another Marine in Twentynine Palms, Calif. They maintained a discreet relationship, with no public displays of affection.

Still, he learned some people were becoming suspicious. Friends who tried to set him up with women eventually learned, from Alva, that he was gay. He had taken the first step in coming out — and it opened a dangerous era.

Alva thinks what saved him was the respect other Marines had for the way he carried himself, but he feared people would find out. Like a fugitive, he picked up and moved in 1994, choosing to take an assignment in Okinawa.

Alva felt married to the corps and kept his personal life separate from it. In fact, his first and only intimate relationship was the one at Twentynine Palms, when he was 23. He stayed celibate by choice — not out of fear of being discovered — and it wasn’t too hard. He loved his work.

A decade passed before his next relationship, which came after he left the service. Alva said he knows other troops who had no relationships for as long as 25 years. Such acts are “sacrifice,” he said, not unlike that of priests and nuns.

Alva came out after Texas and other states sought to ban gay marriage in 2005 and 2006. It was no way to treat someone who had bled or risked his life to die for his country, he said, explaining, “I was angry at the fact that … we oppressed people solely for being who they are.”

Alva had to go the extra mile by hiring a lawyer to ensure that his partner, psychotherapist Darrell E. Parsons, had legal claim to their property.

As he looks back on his career in a volunteer force that is largely composed of men and women who are married, a philosophical Alva knows its risks and sees dysfunction amid the high stress of war. Spouses and kids have seen their loved ones deploy for Iraq and Afghanistan again and again, but they enjoy the cushion of a fine-tuned support system.

Service to the nation is full of difficulties for gay troops as well, but their partners and children are largely unseen. They have no right to join support networks like family readiness groups, or to receive counseling and medical care. Some don’t show up for ceremonies as partners deploy and return from war for fear of jeopardizing their careers.

“When all the buses are lined up to take all the soldiers, Marines or whatever, to get on the planes, you have all your family members there,” he said. “Same-sex partners aren’t even going to the tarmac or the staging area to say goodbye because of that fear.”

There’s no doubt in his mind that some of the thousands of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were gay.

What Alva finds perhaps most galling and unjust is the lack of support that gays have when their partner has died for their country.

“Some of them actually had partners back home who were of same-sex relationships, and hopefully they were in contact with that other person’s family, because who was going to call and give them the knock on the door and say, ‘By the way, your loved one has died’? No one.”

Lives unseen, unheard

Facing the truth

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