On the night of
March 20, 2003, Lois Alva tossed fitfully in her sleep at
home in San Antonio. In a dream, she saw her son Eric
speeding across a vast expanse of sun-whitened desert
in a Jeep.
dream," she recalls, "his leg was sticking out
the window of a vehicle." Lois woke with a
start, profoundly chilled by the surreal image,
particularly on this night. After months of bellicose
chest-pounding from the White House about weapons of mass
destruction, terrorism, and Iraqi freedom, the
invasion of Baghdad was under way, and Eric's
Marine battalion was part of the first wave.
The next day
Staff Sgt. Eric Alva would step on a land mine that would
shatter his right arm, rip his leg from his body, and make
him the first casualty of the Iraq War.
Texas," says 36-year-old Eric Alva in the faintest
drawl as I approach him in the San Antonio
International Airport. He's fit, tan, and
dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt. And within seconds
he's in motion, enthusiastically taking my bags
from my hands and wrangling my luggage into his car
with as much dexterity as any man on two legs.
Alva!" shouts the parking lot attendant through the
glass partition. "I saw you on TV again. Keep
up the good work, man. We're all proud of
you." Blushing furiously, Alva graciously thanks the
woman, then aims his beige Nissan Pathfinder into
traffic, heading for the house he shares with his
partner, Darrell Parsons.
Behind the wheel,
Alva drives like a marine. He squints fiercely into the
late-afternoon sunlight, his jaw set in a firm line. He may
be retired, but military bearing is his default
condition. "I grew up here and people know
me," he says modestly in response to a question about
the attendant. The consummate team player, Alva is
always reluctant to be seen as more heroic than any
isn't like every other marine. In 2003, with the
invasion still fresh in the minds of more optimistic
Americans, the newly wounded marine was a symbol of
everything noble and patriotic about the U.S. military.
He was awarded the Purple Heart by Gen. William Nyland, the
former assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. He
was photographed with the president and first lady as
well as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sheryl Crow. Donald
Rumsfeld dropped by his hospital room for a photo op. The
picture shows the former secretary of Defense towering over
the frail, stone-faced marine and grinning like a
great white shark.
Four years later,
Alva once again distinguished himself--by coming out
on Good Morning America and speaking against
the military's ruinous "don't
ask, don't tell" policy.