By Stephen Appelblatt
The first American soldier to be injured in the Iraq War, who later led the push to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” spoke at Rider on Feb. 17.
Eric Alva, an Iraq War veteran and gay rights activist, spoke to a group of students, faculty and community members. He explained his journey from serving in the military, to standing next to President Obama as he repealed the policy that forced homosexuals to hide their sexual preference in order to serve the country.
Coming from a family of veterans, Alva joined the Marine Corps straight out of high school and served in countries such as Somalia and Kuwait before becoming part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Not three hours after his unit moved into Iraq on March 21, 2003, he stepped on a land mine.
“I tried to move, and I thought I was paralyzed,” Alva said. “I didn’t know what my injuries were. All I kept thinking was, ‘I’m going to die here. I’m going to die here.’”
As a result of injuries sustained from the explosion, Alva’s right leg was amputated. In addition, his right arm and left leg were broken.
After retiring from the military, he returned to his home in San Antonio, Texas, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I fell into a depression for about six to seven months,” Alva said. “I didn’t do anything. I’d speak to one or two people. I’d eat and go back to bed again.”
Eventually, his mother pressured him to return to college. He chose Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where he received his bachelor of social work in 2008 and his master of social work in 2009. It was there that he began to find himself.
“I was discovering who I was,” Alva said. “I was not only disabled now, and of course, a veteran, but I was also a Hispanic and a gay man.”
When the state of Texas passed a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in 2005, Alva was indifferent.
“I kind of just shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘That’s the way it’s always been,’” Alva said. “That’s the way it always will be. That’s just life.”
However, Alva’s boyfriend encouraged him to be more optimistic and told him to contact the Human Rights Campaign. After hearing his story, the group told Alva that he would be an ideal person to assist in the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a policy enacted in 1993 that did not allow gays to serve openly in the military. The passage of it resulted in the removal of questions about sexual orientation on military applications.
“It was the only law that we had ever passed in this country that literally forced people, like myself, to go to work every day and lie about who you are,” Alva said. “Because if you didn’t, then you were going to lose your job or go to prison.”
Alva started working with Congress in 2006 in an effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but found no initial success. However, in 2010, he received a call from the Human Rights Campaign informing him that the U.S. House of Representatives was going to attempt to pass a bill removing that law.
After the bill passed through the House, the Senate voted in favor of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, which then sent the proposal to President Barack Obama’s desk. Alva was invited to witness the signing of the repeal into law on Dec. 22, 2010.
“To be next to the president of the United States signing a bill into history was amazing,” Alva said. “I still get speechless about it. We changed history. Gays were now allowed to serve in the military.”
Today, Alva works at CVS, and plans to continue working with veterans who suffer from PTSD.
The speech was a “captivating, first-hand explanation of the inequalities that occurred in the armed forces,” said audience member Alex Molchansky. “It was an eye-opening discussion about the victory Eric Alva worked for within the LGBT community.”
Alva concluded by saying how fortunate he was in comparison to other soldiers who had suffered more serious injuries. He emphasized how he believes that everyone has the right to be happy.
“Those rights, those freedoms, those liberties, the right to work and live where you want, and marry who you want, belong to every single man, woman and child,” Alva said.
Additional reporting by Julia Corrigan