Wednesday, February 28, 2007

They said he was hero, now what will they say?

Here is a powerful story on several levels. According to ABC News, Staff Sgt. Eric Alva was the first U.S. Marine to be seriously wounded in Iraq. He enlisted when he was fresh out of high school -- just 19-years-old. His father had been in the Army and served in Vietnam and so had his grandfather who served in World War II and Korea. He said: “I wanted a bigger challenge” so he joined the Marines.

A decorated officer Alva had done duty in Japan and Somalia and was then sent to Iraq by President Bush. He was leading his men to Basra from their base in Kuwait. The desert was dark that night and the sand blowing made it difficult to see. They stopped momentarily and Alva went to retrieve something from his Humvee when the explosion went off. It was a land mine that changed Alva’s life.

Evacuated to Kuwait Alva awoke to find his leg was gone. “It was like a nightmare. And I remember just crying for a few minutes, and I fell back to sleep because the drugs were really heavy.”

The Department of Defense has a web page dedicated to Eric Alva with this headline: “’Credit to the Corps,’ Hispanic War Veteran Honored.” They have a picture of him receiving he Heroes and Heritage Award from Major General Christopher Cortez. It was Cortez who said that Alva was “a credit to the Corps”. He also said: “We are grateful for his faithful service and proud to honor him today.”

Alva was touted as a symbol by the pro-war crowd. President and Mrs. Bush paid him a visit when he was transfered to Bethesda Naval Hospital . Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stopped in to say hello. So did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

Another visitor, one not noticed so much by the media, was Lois Alva, his mother. Eric’s first impulse was to apologize to her. Two weeks before Alva was sent to Mr. Bush’s war he decided to fly his mother out to California to see her one more time before deployment. He hadn’t been able to go home for Christmas. The one thing he promised her, as he dropped her off at Palm Springs Airport for her return flight to Texas, was “I’ll come back. I won’t get hurt.”

From Kuwait Alva was sent to Germany for surgery but before his surgery he asked to call his parents. He said he wanted to speak to them and to tell his mother he was sorry for not keeping his word. He hadn’t kept his promise to her. He couldn’t keep his word. He told her: “I’m so sorry I got hurt.” Lois said she could barely breath at that moment and told him all she cared about was that he was still alive.

That night in the desert Alva’s friend, Brian Alaniz, rushed to his side to help his comrade. "I knelt down to put together a suction device,” said Alaniz. Alva was in such pain he couldn’t understand what was happening and he temporarily lost his hearing from the force of the explosion so he couldn’t hear what anyone was saying to him.

As Alaniz was helping his friend there was another explosion. He said, “the second explosion went off underneath me”. Alaniz lost his leg in that explosion. “I didn’t realize that it was -- that it was -- that it was Brian that actually got hit that time,” says Alva.

Lois says that Eric feels bad and blames himself for Brian’s injuries because he thinks “if it hadn’t been for him, [Alaniz] wouldn’t have stepped on the mine.” Eric told one news crew: “You think of the what-ifs in the beginning. And if I hadn’t gotten hurt, then Brian would still be -- have both legs... I felt responsible for what had happened to him.”

Alva says: “I went through countless nights of agony and tears but there was never any doubt, I kept faith that I could recover, and I’m still recovering.”

Lois said that lying in the hospital Eric had already been contemplating his future. “I look at Eric having a strong heart; he’s very strong-spirited and not the type to easily give up. He’s talking about working with children with disabilities.” He is now studying for a degree in physical therapy.

Brian Alaniz says he’s learned so much from Eric Alva. “Eric’s a hero for everything that he’s accomplished since his injury. It’s easy when you’re on top. But when you hit rock bottom and then try to climb back up, you know, it really defines who you are and -- and what you stand for.... He inspires me a lot.” Eric says the same of Brian. He says he has become the brother he never had. “I thank him every day for -- for -- for the effort and the job that he did that day.... To me he’s a hero.”

Eric Alva is putting his life back together. He was a marathon runner in the Marines and has been learning how to ski again, without one leg. He’s been asked to join the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. “It’s amazing how quickly I was able to get back into skiing. Cross country skiing was a bit tougher than downhill, though, because I had to use a lot more upper body strength and I’m still getting used to my right arm not being as strong.”

Each week Alva takes time out to speak to various groups about the war. He says at the schools children always want to talk about he guns but that he tries to steer them away and toward more important things. “I want to get across to them that I was lucky to make it home, and others were not so lucky. I also want to motivate them do something with their lives.”

Perhaps that ought to be the theme for Alva’s own life. Here was a young man who wanted to do something with his life. He wanted to make an important contribution. And certainly he has inspired people. The testimonies of his friends and family bear witness to that.

Alva dreamed of running again in the Marine marathon. And he seems like a man who can do whatever he sets him mind to do. But he can’t. He is no longer considered fit to be a Marine or to serve his country in the military. And it's not because he lost a leg.

He was home one evening spending time with the love of his life, who said to him that Alva lost his leg defending freedom and rights that he himself will never be allowed to enjoy. He was told: “Look at the rights that people are being denied. And look at the rights that you are fighting for. Look at the rights that you put your life on the line for, for this country. And yet you don’t get any of them.”

Alva was shocked, perhaps a little hurt, but he realized it was true. His partner is another man and Alva is gay. That night he realized: “I’m just a second class citizen who isn’t going to get anything unless I say something. And I’m in a position to do something.”

So war hero Staff Sgt. Eric Alva publicly announced he was gay and that he would fight for the repeal of government policy that prevents men like himself from serving in the military. “There are certain things you do in life at a certain time and a certain place. In my heart, I this this is the right time.”

Some of his friends in the Marines knew his secret. He tells of a night when he was having drinks in a bar with a fellow Marine who commented on some of the women. Alva didn’t say anything and the other Marine made a remark: “Dude, what’s the matter? Are you gay or something?” With two margaritas under his belt he was feeling bold and replied “As a matter of fact I am. So what do you have to say about that, jerk off?”

When the other Marine realized he was serious he told Alva he’d keep his secret. He didn’t. He would tell others and repeatedly he found himself shot down because the other service men didn’t care.

Eric says he just want to “be your regular, average American citizen who has a voice, who has a point to make and wants to empower other people about the rights and equality of what people really deserve in this country.”

Eric Alva is truly a second class citizen. His sexual orientation makes him ineligible to serve the country which honored him for the very service they say he is incapable of giving. He can’t marry his partner. As Eric says: “Any American willing to serve their country shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not the government will give them fair and equal treatment when they return home.” Of course he is right but then neither should it deny them fair and equal treatment even if they don’t enlist in the military.

Equal rights before the law ought to be the birthright of every American. Jefferson’s magnificent Declaration didn’t say that “all men are created equal (except for homosexuals)”.

In one interview he was asked about the wedding band he wears on his hand. He told about his recent flight to Washington to speak out in favor of equal rights for gay military personnel. He was waiting to board the plane: “This very nice woman next to me said she recognized me. She looked at my ring and asked about my wife. I told her I have partner. His name is Darrell. She paused and said, ‘Good for you.’”

Good for him, indeed.

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