On Tuesday October 11, 2011, in recognition of National Coming Out Day, the Salt Lake Community College Speaker’s Bureau partnered with Coloring Outside the Lines and the Multicultural and Diversity Committee to welcome Eric Alva to the Markosian Library on the Taylorsville Redwood Campus.
Alva is a retired Staff Sergeant of the U.S. Marine Corps and the national spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in the fight to repeal the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. Alva was the first American soldier to be injured in the Iraq War and the war’s first Purple Heart recipient. He told the audience of the fear he felt each time that he was commended for his courage because he was afraid of being found out and getting kicked out of the military.
Once Alva shared his story, he was joined by a panel of Salt Lake Community College administrators with ties to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community for a question and answer session. The panel was introduced by Richard Scott, executive director of the Grand Theatre, chair of the Art and Culture Programs and chair of the Speaker’s Bureau. The panel discussion was moderated by Jonathan Stowers, associate professor of the Language Department. The panel members were Alexander Smith, counseling services manager over Health and Wellness, Gordon Storrs of Master Planning and Allison Fernley, associate professor of the English Department.
In February 2007, Good Morning America broke Alva’s story and that is when he came out to the world. Not only was he a wounded Marine, he was also gay.
“We didn’t talk about being gay in my family,” he said.
Alva is from San Antonio, Texas and of Hispanic descent. He grew up in a Roman Catholic family and has a twin sister. His father and his grandfather served in the U.S. Army; his grandfather was a World War II and Korean War veteran and his father served in the Vietnam War.
In the sprit of continuing to fight for American freedom, Alva has partnered with the Human Rights Campaign to stand up and speak out for the estimated 65,000 GLBT service people that voluntarily serve our country in the military but have been forced by fear into silence by this discriminatory policy. He has taken his obligation even further to include speaking out for all GLBT Americans in defense of their rights.
Since the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2010, American GLBT service people can now serve openly in the U.S. Military without fear of losing their jobs. This is an accomplishment, but Alva believes it is only the beginning and there is much left to do to secure equal rights for all GLBT Americans.
Some examples of the work Alva says is left to be done include the HRC’s goal to pass “The Respect for Marriage” Act in repeal of the present “Defense of Marriage” Act and the continuing battle to ensure federal tax, social security and survivorship benefits for same sex couples.
Alva explained that during the years that the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was enforced, thousands of dedicated military personnel with critical skills and expertise lost their jobs for expressing a sexual orientation other than heterosexuality. These service people were dishonorably discharged and labeled as homosexuals. To this day, the homosexual label and dishonorable discharge prevents them from collecting any type of veterans’ benefits. Alva hopes to see these dishonorable discharges retroactively lifted to allow them to collect the veterans’ benefits they have earned.
In telling his story, Alva revealed having to lie on his enlistment application and answering “heterosexual” to the question that was asked of his sexual orientation even though he knew he was gay. He even went so far as to make up a phony girlfriend to try to cover up his identity as a gay man in the military.
During his 13 years of military service, Alva was first deployed to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope and was later stationed in Okinawa, Japan for a time. He was proud to be a Marine and chose to reenlist in 2002. Then on January 15, 2003 Alva was deployed to Kuwait; his mission was to search for weapons of mass destruction.
On March 19, 2003 as his logistical convoy began to head north toward Iraq from Kuwait, Alva told of riding along in the Humvee and drifting off to sleep only to be awakened by the sound of bombs. While attending to his duties and after being in Iraq for no more than about three hours, Alva tripped on a land mine while approaching the Humvee he had arrived in.
Alva incurred severe injuries from the blast, including hearing loss, a broken left leg and a broken right arm with severe nerve damage. He lost the end of his right index finger and his right leg was so badly damaged that it had to be amputated above the knee. In the chaos of the explosion, a medic responding to Alva tripped on a second land mine. Both men were taken by helicopter to a makeshift hospital in Kuwait for treatment of their wounds.
Alva closed his remarks by assuring the audience that even with all of the personal hardships he has faced he wouldn’t change anything about his life. He is proud of who he is and the person he has become because of the trials he has faced.