Hail the Hesitant Hero

Robert Acosta joined the Army looking for a life. Thanks to an ambush in Iraq, he found it

"I am not anybody's propaganda ploy, well, except my own."

—Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi

The day Robert Acosta would finally rest was July 13, 2003. The 20-year-old Santa Ana native had slogged through three months of keeping the peace in postwar Iraq as an ammunitions specialist for the First Battalion of the 501st Regiment in the Army's First Armored Division. He had three more months to go. He had killed his share of Iraqis, had seen enough mangled bodies and lives and sand to last a thousand deployments. But today would be different. Today, Acosta wanted to enjoy his Sunday off by lounging near the base pool at Baghdad International Airport. But first, he wanted a Coke.

Acosta hopped into a Humvee with his friend, Anthony Manto. They drove through downtown Baghdad to a road where merchants hawked cheap soda and ice. Acosta and his buddy armed themselves with flak jackets, helmets and a fully equipped Humvee. Acosta, a M16-A2 rifle hanging from his shoulder, rode shotgun.

After about two hours of sitting in choking traffic, Acosta and Manto saw the ice man. They slowed. A young boy—maybe 13—approached. Acosta wasn't surprised and patted his pockets for some candy. But then Acosta noticed the boy clench something in his fist.

The grenade twirled into the Humvee, bounced off the windshield and dropped onto the vehicle's floor. Acosta immediately lunged after it. He grabbed the grenade, crouched down, wound up and readied to throw it out.

But as his right hand stretched behind his head, his knuckles smacked the Humvee's roof. The grenade fell out and clanged around the floor. Grimacing in pain, Robert feverishly searched for it—it was next to his legs. He grabbed it again and now just tried to flick it away.

* * *

Robert Acosta needs a smoke. He's standing outside a Beverly Hills estate on a warm October afternoon, avoiding a fund-raiser being held in his honor. He's nervous. He's made as many sartorial deferments as possible to the event. Instead of the rumpled Sublime or JackassT-shirts he favors, Acosta is wearing a white guayabera long enough to mask most of his tattoos, although the "Gemini" inscribed in cursive on his left bicep occasionally sneaks out of his sleeve. He tamed the facial hair down to an immaculate, mustache-free goatee, its light-brown tint complementing Acosta's hazel eyes and short, somewhat-kinky hair. But he kept the checkered Vans, the shoes he vows to sport forever, damn the steel rod holding his left leg together. The metal claw he now calls his right hand is held in place by a cup placed over the gnarled stump that was once the halfway point of his forearm.

And the cigarettes. He's supposed to be quitting, but Acosta lights up a Camel. He smiles at his girlfriend, 21-year-old Sandy Restrepo. "This place is pretty snazzy," Acosta says and laughs.

"I thought you gave up smoking," Restrepo playfully snaps.

He swigs an energy drink.

"Yeah, well, it helps me relax . . ." he begins, but a shrill voice interrupts.

"Robert?" a socialite with a thick Eastern European accent asks. "Are you Robert?" He nods. She jumps. "We're ready for you! Hey, come on in, we're ready for you!"

She hugs Acosta and acknowledges Restrepo. As the three walk into the mansion, she grasps onto Acosta's claw as if they're about to waltz. "We got him!" she shrieks to a producer, who is just as ecstatic to see him.

"Hey, my man!" she exclaims before she embraces Acosta. "We're calling you a rock star nowadays! Greatcommercial!"

Outside Baghdad, 2003

"Yeah, my buddies are calling me Hollywood," Acosta admits with a blushing grin. He puts out his cigarette.

Acosta is here tonight as a member of Operation Truth, a nonprofit organization started by Iraq War veterans to highlight the concerns of soldiers fighting America's latest war. Just a couple of days earlier in a Los Angeles studio, Acosta filmed a commercial for Operation Truth that has since aired on CNN and spread across the Internet. But tonight, a group of actors and Westside elites will screen the commercial with Acosta in attendance. They are ready to give Operation Truth thousands of dollars.

Acosta maintains he's just another former soldier looking to reassemble his life, but that's a humble man for you. When Acosta first returned to the United States after his injury, when he thought about killing himself, he wanted the world to leave him be. But as he enters the Beverly Hills mansion, the NBC News crew rushes up to shake his good hand and whisper "Thank you," and he doesn't run away like before. In the year and a half since that July day, everyone has wanted a piece of him—TV producers and The Orange County Register and Oprah and OC Weekly and military men and anti-war activists and strangers all intent on using Acosta as the personification of willing hero with the resolve to give a limb for the USA or tragic victim of imperialistic folly. Acosta is young, handsome and articulate. And he doesn't have half of his arm. In short, he is the face of the Iraq vet—how could you not want a piece of him?

Next Page »