'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Revisited

Alva had no such specialized skills, but he was a decorated staff sergeant who had served in Somalia and Japan. As troops began to push into Iraq, on March 21, 2003, Alva was leading 11 Marines among 75 or so sailors and Marines in a 50- to 55-vehicle convoy on its way from the desert in Kuwait to Basra, Iraq.

It was a logistical convoy moving through the desert at night, lights out, night-vision goggles on.

The sand was so kicked up it was nearly impossible for Alva to even keep track of the vehicle in front of him.

At one of three stops along the way, Alva, who hadn't eaten for a full day, was heating up an MRE when he went to get something out of his Humvee.

"I took maybe a step or two," Alva said, "and that is when the explosion went off."

It was a land mine.

"I stepped on a land mine with my right foot," Alva said. "The explosion went off and threw me about 10 feet. I was in severe pain."

His hearing was temporarily lost, so he couldn't hear his own screaming. His hand was covered in blood; the tip of the index finger on his right hand was blown off, and the nerves had been damaged forever. Marines ran to him.

"They lifted my left foot and cut the bootlaces from the bottom, and they lifted my heel, and they took the boot off from the heel," Alva said. "And they never touched the right leg. So I remember even asking the chaplain, 'What is wrong with my legs? What is wrong with my legs?' And the chaplain -- because we had chaplains with us -- and he said, 'There is nothing wrong. You are fine. You are fine.'"

But he wasn't. Evacuated to Kuwait by helicopter, Alva woke up hours later in the post-op recovery room. His leg was gone.

"It felt like a nightmare," he said. "And I remember just crying like for a few minutes, and I fell back to sleep because the drugs were really heavy."

In Bethesda Naval Hospital, Alva was visited by President Bush and the first lady, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Jordan.

What none of them knew, and what the 5-foot-1-inch Latino from San Antonio had known by the time he had graduated from high school: He was gay.

Alva knew it when he enlisted at age 19 in 1990, but even though he acknowledges lying on his application when asked about his sexual orientation, it sounds as if deciding to pick the Marines over the U.S. Army weighed more heavily on his mind.

"My father and grandfather were in the Army," Alva said, "but then I decided you know what, I wanted a bigger challenge, and actually that's when I went to go see a Marine Corps recruiter."

Alva says that it was tougher for the military's closeted gays before the 1993 "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law Clinton at the time called "an imperfect compromise."

"If you were even assumed to be" gay, you would likely be questioned by superior officers, Alva recalls.

"You could be a heterosexual male who was married, but if you had a feminine side to them, what they did back then in 1990, '91 or even before that, is you started to get questioned. You actually had what people used to label as a witch hunt. … Your staff would start to question you and interrogate you and, you know, just pressure you like, you know."

That changed with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Which is not to say that Alva didn't "tell" anyone.

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