ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
One of the people leading the charge to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell is retired Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva. On the first day of the Iraq War, Alva stepped on a mine and lost his right leg - he was the first member of the American military injured in the war in Iraq.
Last month, Alva revealed that he is gay. He has decided to work with the gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign to repeal the ban against gays serving in the military.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva joins us now from San Antonio, and Mr. Alva, what was your reaction when you first heard about General Pace's statements?
Mr. ERIC ALVA (Retired Marine Staff Sergeant): Waking up this morning and actually seeing the Morning News on CNN and other stations, it was very appalling. You know, we're a in a crucial point and the Iraq War and even the continuing war in Afghanistan, and to make such an insensitive and disrespectful remark to thousands of men and women serving in the military who are possibly gay, and to blatantly come out and disrespect them like that, it was just unbelievable.
NORRIS: What do you say to people who are argue on the other side, who say that this can undermine morale, that there was someone who was at - who was openly or even secretly homosexual serving with any unit?
Mr. ALVA: You know, people are going to have to voice their opinion. I mean, that's one of our privileges and that's one of our rights that I was fighting for in this country - freedom of speech. And I would have to disagree them. We are at a time in our country where, you know, it's 2007 and as an individual myself, you know, who has put himself on the line and sacrificed for his country - losing a leg in Iraq - you know, we have to really start looking at the basis of what we continue to do and that's discriminate against men and women, you know, in our armed forces. And it's kind of ironic for the one organization that protects the shield of our defense in this country, of all the rights and privileges of people - not just some, everybody - it's the first to discriminate.
NORRIS: I want to ask you something, and I realize that this would be based on your experience and not actual, you know, hard, scientific data but how common is it for gay men and women to serve in the military, and how is it viewed within the ranks?
Mr. ALVA: It's very common. My coming out a couple of weeks ago, I am working alongside with the human rights campaign. My overall response has just been so positive from people of all ranks, even anonymous e-mails from people serving in the military. So I think it's very common that people recognize that there are men and women in today's military - they are serving alongside them that are gay. And I think the general overall consensus, people are okay with that.
NORRIS: How did members of your unit respond?
Mr. ALVA: You know, I did confide it in people in my various units throughout my career - not like, you know, dozens and dozens of people, but just my closest friends. And people I knew I could trust and people just still treated me as a fellow Marine and someone who knew how to get the job done, just as is anyone else. And, I mean, it was a positive experience for me.
NORRIS: Did you consider coming out earlier while you were still serving with the military?
Mr. ALVA: Oh, no. I just - it was a huge sacrifice to keep that secret, and it was something - I was already ready prepared mentally that I knew I had to do. I love being a Marine and I wanted - I was making it a career. And other than the, you know, suffering the injury that I did, I'd probably would still be in the military.
NORRIS: And you come from a family with a long line of military service, is that correct?
Mr. ALVA: Correct, my grandfather being in World War II and Korea, and my father being in Vietnam during '67, '68, during the Tet Offensive, and myself serving in Somalia in '92, '93, before Blackhawk Down, and now in Iraq.
NORRIS: So to listen to you, it sounds like you were forced or you were decided to live a lie, does that take a toll on you?
Mr. ALVA: It does. A lot of people even as far as closest friends would ask why would you make such a sacrifice. I think all of us have our own, you know, personal beliefs and kind of a heart-warm feelings - when we want something, we go after it - and I wanted to be in the military, and I did. So I knew one of the sacrifices I would have to make would be keep quiet about my personal life. And even beyond keeping quiet about my personal life was really not to have a personal life.
NORRIS: And Mr. Alva, when you served in the military, you kept your sexual orientation a secret. But while serving, did you talked to other people who were serving in the military, who were gay, about their experience?
Mr. ALVA: I met a couple of people. The majority of people that I did meet did their time of maybe three to four years, and they would leave the military because they knew it was too hard for them. They knew that they cannot have the privileges of both worlds - being gay and also, you know, being in the military, because it was just too hard for them. You know, I think we're at 3,193 people who have been killed in action in Iraq. There are people in that number who were gay - gay men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the rights and freedoms of people in this country. To treat them as a second-rate citizen, someone who has paid the ultimate sacrifice, is just dishonorable. It's disrespecting and it's something that as far as for the future of this country, of future generations, we need to stop discriminating against people because just basically who they are.
NORRIS: Former Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ALVA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.