Feb. 28, 2007 — -- The first U.S. Marine seriously wounded in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine, but today he and his prosthetic leg will march right into one of the most contentious battles in American politics.
Alva will stand with Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., as a bipartisan group of Congress members introduces legislation to overturn the ban on openly gay and lesbian troops serving in the military.
Alva says that losing his leg forced him out of the closet.
"It made me realize everything that I had to actually speak up for," Alva said to ABC News in an exclusive TV interview, "basically the rights and privileges of what I as an individual have earned in this country."
He imagines conversations with the political opponents he knows he will now face.
"'OK buddy,'" he said, "'you pick up a gun and you go fight in Iraq or Afghanistan for a while, then you could come back and we can have a talk because I've actually sacrificed, I've actually done duty and served in this country for your rights and freedom.'"
The Pentagon has long maintained that the ban is necessary for unit cohesion.
"The bottom line for the military is, 'Is this a policy change that's going to help promote combat effectiveness?'" said retired Lt. Col. Robert "Bob" Maginnis. "I see no evidence of that."
Alva hopes that he can change minds by arguing the ban is simply unfair to gays and lesbian service members who are already serving their nation honorably, not to mention Americans who want to serve.
He and his partner will never be able to live under the same rules and regulations applied to a husband and wife, for instance.
But increasingly, advocates for lifting the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise that President Clinton signed into law in 1993 argue that the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly is a national security issue.
The military is stretched thin, the argument goes, and the unit cohesion commanders argue is threatened with the presence of "out" soldiers and Marines pales in comparison with the loss of specialists.
Data released today by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group that supports lifting the ban, suggests that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban is disproportionately affecting troops in key specialties.
Of 742 such dismissals in fiscal year 2005, the highest number than in any category -- 49 -- were medical personnel. An additional 40 were law enforcement officers, along with 14 intelligence officers, 35 infantrymen, and seven nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialists.
This generally squares with the Government Accountability Office's 2004 study, which found that of the 9,488 service members who at that point had been discharged from the military for gay and lesbian conduct since 1993, approximately 757 -- or 8 percent -- "held critical occupations," meaning the kinds of jobs for which the Pentagon offers selective reenlistment bonuses.
That number included 322 with "skills in an important language such as Arabic, Farsi or Korean."
Maginnis says that the military has "come to the conclusion that if we embrace homosexuality openly in the military than that has far more of a detrimental impact than will keeping someone just because they happen to have a critical skill."
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.
"I told tons of people," he said, with a laugh. "A lot of my friends, my buddies, my closest Marines, people I had served in combat with. Straight guys, married, with children and everything, three of them which I have become their sons' godfather now. Everybody was just respectful and was just like ordinary. 'That's it? That's your big news?'"
Alva says that while anti-gay language wasn't exactly unheard of in the Marines, generally he thinks troops are ready for gays and lesbians to serve openly.
"Being on the front lines and serving with the people who even actually knew that I was gay, you know, that was never a factor. We were there to do a job. We were [there] to do a mission. I don't think people would have a hard time with it because they know that the person right next to them is going to be there to protect them, in our terms, 'have their back.'"