LGBTQ+ History Month: Eric Fidelis Alva, SSgt, U.S. Marine Corps

I joined the military because I wanted to serve. I was patriotic, idealistic; I was also gay.

Marine/Activist/Author

b. April 1, 1971

Staff Sgt. Eric Alva waves to delegates after he was honnored during the GOP state convention in San Antonio, Friday, June 4, 2004. Alva lost his leg after stepping on a land mine in Iraq. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Retired Staff Sergeant Eric Alva was the first American servicemember wounded in the Iraq War. He is an LGBTQ+ civil rights activist and was a national spokesman for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

A native of San Antonio, Texas, Alva inherited his middle name from his grandfather and father who were both Marine veterans named Fidelis. He dreamed of serving in the U.S. military and his dream came true when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1990.

Alva made it through the rigors of Marine Corps boot camp and began a 13-year career as a U.S. Marine with postings in Okinawa and Somalia. In 2000, he was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant (SSgt).

Following the attacks on 9/11 and the start of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in Afghanistan, the U.S. developed plans to enter Iraq and, in 2003, the military began operations in the country. Alva was deployed to Iraq with a supply unit and was in charge of 11 Marines.

On March 21, 2003, the first day of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, Alva was with his battalion when the stepped on a land mine. The explosion would shatter his right arm and cause severe damage to this right leg, severe enough for the leg to be amputated. His injuries resulted in Alva receiving a medical discharge and also a Purple Heart presented to him by President George W. Bush.

Having survived a war injury, Alva felt he’d been given a second chance at life and discovered a new calling. “I had to use my voice,” he says. “I had fought and nearly died to secure rights for others that I was not free to enjoy. I had proudly served a country that was not proud of me.”

It’s been reported that Alva was out to his fellow Marines for much of his military career during the time of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Below is SSgt Alva’s story in his own words taken from a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Review hearing before the Military Personnel Subcommitee of the Committee on Armed Services in the House of Representatives on July 23, 2008.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Chairwoman and members of the committee. My name is Eric Fidelis Alva. I was a staff sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. I am honored to testify today and to share my experiences with the subcommittee. Thank you for holding this hearing.

"I grew up in a military family in Texas. My father served in Vietnam, my grandfather in World War II. I guess you could say that service was in my blood. I inherited my middle name, Fidelis, from my father and grandfather. As you know, the Marine credo, Semper Fi is  short for Semper Fidelis, always faithful. Loyalty is literally my middle name. So I guess you could say that serving my country was my calling.

"I joined the military because I wanted to serve. I joined the Marines because I wanted a challenge. I was 19 years old, I was patriotic, idealistic and also gay.

"For 13 years I served in the Marines Corps. I served in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope. I loved the discipline and camaraderie. What I hated was concealing part of who I am.

"My military service came to an end on March 21st, 2003. Three hours into the invasion of Iraq we had to stop to wait for orders. I went back to the Humvee to retrieve something, to this day I can’t remember what, and as I crossed that dusty patch of desert for the third time that day, I triggered a land mine.

"I was thrown through the air, landing 10 or 15 feet away from the vehicle. The pain was unimaginable. My fellow marines were rushing to my aid, cutting away my uniform to assess the damage and treat my wounds. I remember wondering why they weren’t removing my right boot. It wasn’t until later that I had realized that was because that leg was already gone. When I regained consciousness in a hospital outside Kuwait City my right leg was gone, my left leg was broken, and my right arm permanently damaged. I also had the dubious honor of being the first American injured in the Iraq war. I received a Purple Heart along with visits from the President and the First Lady. I was told I was a hero.

"That land mine may have put an end to my military career that day, but it didn’t put an end to my secret. That would come years later when I realized that I had fought and nearly died to secure the rights for others that I myself was not free to enjoy. I had proudly served a country that was not proud of me. More importantly, my experience just proved all the arguments against open service by gays and lesbians.

"I knew I had to share my story. Even under the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law, I was out to a lot of my fellow marines. The typical reaction from my fellow service members: So what? I was the same person, I did my job well, and that is all they cared about. Today I am godfather to three of those men’s children.

"Normally I was cautious about whom I divulged my secret to; I thought I had to be. Then one evening out with some guys from our unit, I let my guard down. One of the guys commented on some women in a bar. When my response was less than enthusiastic, he asked me jokingly if I was gay. As a matter of fact I am, I responded. He swore to keep my secret, but I suppose he thought it was just too good a piece of gossip to pass up. He was wrong. No one he told cared. The response from everyone was the same as it had been from the friends in whom I confided: So what? I was still Eric, still one of them, still a marine. I was still trusted."That was a very powerful thing for me, that I still had their trust, because the supporters of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are right about one thing: Unit cohesion is essential. What my experience proves, they are wrong about how to achieve it. My being gay and even many of my colleagues knowing about it didn’t damage unit cohesion. They put their lives in my hands, and when I was injured, they risked their lives to save mine.

"My experience gives me confidence in our military men and women. I am confident that just as they are capable of immense professionalism and dedication to duty, putting their lives on the line every day, our soldiers are equally capable of putting aside personal bias and standing shoulder to shoulder with gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. They are there to fulfill a mission. This is my unit, and our war. They will do their duty.

"As a former marine and patriotic American, I am horrified that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forces trained and ready troops to chose between serving their country and living openly, a choice I myself would have been faced with had a land mine not made it for me. I am appalled that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forces the involuntary separation of thousands of skilled service members during a time of war, threatening our country’s military readiness for no good reason.

"My experiences serving the military demonstrate that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is an outdated, useless law. Since leaving the military, the opportunities I have had to speak with Americans, both gay and straight, have shown time and again that the American people support open service by gay, lesbian and bisexual troops. Those who support Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell claim they do so in the interest of unit cohesion, while as a former marine, I can tell you what it takes to build unit cohesion: Trust.

"I can also tell you that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell does nothing but undercut the trust and with it our Nation’s security. I urge the members of the subcommittee to rethink this failed law. Thank you."

In 2003, Alva received the Heroes and Heritage Award from La Raza. People magazine honored him with the Heroes Among Us Award (2004). He received the Patriot Award from the City of San Antonio (2004), and the Public Citizen Award from the National Association of Social Workers (2008).

Most recently, Alva’s second book, “Radical Courage: How One Marine’s Sacrifice Helped Change America“, was published earlier this month. In it, he “shares his powerful story of coming out as a gay man in the armed forces, as well as his ardent advocacy for diversity and inclusion in the workplace.” His first book was a memoir published in 2010 titled, “Once A Marine: A Memoir of Coming Out Under Fire“.

Bibliography

Books by Eric Alva

Books about Eric Alva

Videos of Eric Alva

Press Conference Transcript

Representation

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