Mouth for Sale: Eric Alva, trailblazer

Ask Eric Alva about his Iraq War experience and he responds dryly, "Part of me didn't make it home." Specifically, that would be half of his right leg and an index finger, blown off by an IED (improvised explosive device) as the 13-year Marine Corps veteran was about to warm his MRE (meal, ready-to-eat).

That near-death experience, after just three days in Iraq, left Alva to face months of surgery, a prosthetic limb, and a dubious honor: the war's first casualty. He was awarded a Purple Heart and star treatment aplenty, from bedside photo ops with President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to a stop on Oprah.

Yet while his physical wounds healed, Alva's emotional state was in turmoil. Like his father and grandfather before him, Alva had joined the military with both admiration and inspiration. "I saw my friends coming home from boot camp with a complete transformation, not just in their appearance but in their bearing," he says. "I wanted to be just like them so I joined the Marine Corps." But Alva's long and distinguished career had come at a personal price. "I'd risked my life to defend my country, yet I could not serve openly as a gay man," says Alva. "I felt a responsibility to tell America that part of my story."

Unable to sleep one night last year, Alva left a message with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), offering his help in their efforts to do away with the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule. To that end, Alva, now 36, has become a very public poster boy for repealing the controversial policy, speaking before Congress and crisscrossing the country, along with several other gay and lesbian former military personnel, as part of HRC's Legacy of Service Tour. His pitch for equality in the military, a blend of Marine Corps fundamentals and humanistic logic, also serves as a motivational primer for groups of any stripe: Its hallmarks are patience, communication, and respect.

"It's wrong when people who are devoted to their work and committed to excellence are treated unequally and disrespectfully simply because of who they are," he says. "You have to give respect to earn respect. I never talked down to my Marines. I always gave them respect first, and that works."

Alva also counsels his audiences to take more of life's hurdles in stride, a trait often lacking in the business world. "When you almost die, then get a second chance, you have to look at things differently," he says. "The obstacles I had to get through just to get back to leading a normal life were considerable, but I did it."

Originally published October 01, 2007

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