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06-30-07, 07:43 AM
The first Iraq casualty: Some wounds don't show

2007 Houston Chronicle

The first member of the U.S. military wounded in the current Iraq war will have an aisle seat at tonight's world premiere of American Homefront.

If Eric Alva finds the play's subject too painful, he says, "I can exit gracefully."

Homefront, dedicated to Alva, is about an American soldier captured by insurgents and what happens to him and particularly his parents when it is disclosed that he is gay.

Alva's experience in the Marines was different, he says, but he learned how it felt to risk his life and lose a leg for a government that defines homosexuals and bisexuals as unfit to serve.

Alva, who is 36 and gay, was born and raised in San Antonio in a close Hispanic and Catholic family. In 1990, he enlisted in the Marines.

As a means to an end, Alva lied about his sexual orientation when he filled out the forms. At 19, he says, he wasn't thinking about the personal or political ramifications.

In 1993, when President Bill Clinton endorsed the "don't ask, don't tell" approach to gays in the military, Alva viewed it as mixed news. Good, he thought, to eliminate questions about sexual orientation, but ridiculous that patriotic Americans could be automatically dismissed from the military for telling the truth.

Alva was a good soldier, then a good staff sergeant, but unremarkable until March 2003. Then, as he and thousands of other U.S. soldiers swarmed into Iraq, he stepped on a land mind.

When he was able to take stock of his injuries, he was in a hospital in Kuwait. His left leg and right arm were permanently damaged and his right leg was gone. Doctors and nurses told Alva he was the first American injured in the war. As he moved from hospital to hospital and back to the United States, a parade of politicians and dignitaries including President and Laura Bush and then defense secretary Ronald Rumsfeld repeated that message.

He was the first man down. "Stay strong," they told him. "Recovery quickly."

In the next few months and years, Alva became something of a celebrity. He received a Purple Heart. He was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric. It took Alva four years, until last March, to tackle the subject that continued to chafe. He risked his life to serve his country. "But," he says, "I don't have full rights as an American. I can't share my military benefits with my partner. If something happened to me, my pension would disappear. The house we own is only in my name. We're not recognized as a couple."

The military needs good men and women, Alva says. "Why turn away thousands and thousands of dedicated personnel with critical skills and expertise?"

Alva says his family supports him. So do friends and strangers. Recently a middle-aged woman noticed the band on his left ring finger asked if he had children.

"No," he said, "I'm not married. I have a partner."

"Good for you," she said. "It's one thing I keep telling my daughter. 'Live your life, and live it to the fullest.' "