On 21 March 2003, the United States military forces crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq on the first day of the ground war of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This movement followed a night of “shock and awe” in which American and British air forces had attacked Iraqi military positions in advance of the invasion. Staff Sergeant Eric Fidelis Alva was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, when the unit crossed from Kuwait into Iraq. Three hours into the ground war, the Marine convoy halted its advance. SSgt Alva exited his vehicle and walked to the front hood to heat his MRE, something he had almost never done before. While returning to the side of the vehicle he triggered a mine which exploded beneath him. He had become the first injury of the war and was the war’s first Purple Heart recipient. In almost any previous war, that would have been the end of Eric’s story. The end of his life. But not in 2003.
What followed was a story of extensive trauma, horrible pain, endless surgeries, frustrating rehabilitation, and lonely moments where thoughts of death and despair were never far away. But Eric Alva persevered. He overcame obstacles and learned to live a new life missing his right leg. Something few of us can even imagine. He retired from the Marines with 13 years of service and began life post-military, inspiring others with stories of pushing beyond physical challenges and overcoming obstacles. Learning to snow ski and scuba dive, and helping others to do the same. And that, too, may have been the end of his story. But it wasn’t. Eric’s work, and his challenges, were not finished.
Coming out as gay was not an easy decision for a Texan from a deeply Hispanic culture. It was a challenge and there were many risks to being open about who he was, including the risk of rejection from the family who had been so supportive throughout his long ordeal of injury and recovery. But circumstances had placed Eric Alva in a unique position. The fight to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law, the military policy that denied LGBT people the right to serve in defense of our nation’s freedom, was looking for a champion, and Eric Alva fit the description. Once again, he crossed the line and took a dangerous step.