Hail the Hesitant Hero

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

* * *

A couple of weeks before the Beverly Hills fund-raiser, Acosta and Restrepo were at Tustin's Swinging Door for a weeknight billiards session. Acosta lives about three minutes away in a nondescript Tustin apartment with his lifelong friend, Rubén Alvarado. The bar—once deemed one of America's 20 greatest dive bars by Stuff—is his favorite: "Good atmosphere, people leave you alone, and great music from the jukebox. Plus," he adds with a smirk, "if I'm ever too drunk to drive, I can just walk home."

Acosta doesn't want to play pool just yet, so he dares Alvarado to challenge the resident pool shark. Alvarado takes on the bet—and loses in about two minutes. "Dude, he took you to school!" Acosta yells, as Jimi Hendrix blitzkriegs through "Fire" in the background. Alvarado, ever mischievous, yells back, "Let's see how well you do."

"Fuck it," Acosta responds. He grabs a cue stick and shakes hands with the shark. The shark glimpses at Acosta's prosthetic. Everyone does. Acosta takes an early lead but loses. Afterward, the shark slaps Acosta on his right shoulder and asks about the injury. Acosta tells the story willingly, and the shark offers a beer.

Acosta racks up the balls for another game when a woman in a black top and jean shorts snakes her way toward him. She's been eyeing him all night. Restrepo does nothing. Everywhere Restrepo and Acosta go, people approach and ask.

The woman snuggles up to Acosta. She strokes his prosthetic in a flitting, sensual manner. Acosta stiffens.

"So," the woman coos, "what happened?"

"Lost it in Iraq," Acosta replies gruffly, almost barking.

"Well, at least it was just your arm, you know. At least you still have your life."

Acosta doesn't respond.

"So, are you voting for Kerry?"

"Kerry's an asshole."

"So you're voting for Bush, then."

"No—Bush is a bigger asshole."

"Well, I guess we just have to go back there and finish the job, right?"

"No, this war is fucked-up." Acosta's eyes dart around for Restrepo, Alvarado, anyone.

"But we have to go back there and finish the job," the woman continues. "Because if we don't . . ." At this point, she begins sawing her hand across her neck.

Acosta turns and stomps to the bar to order another beer. Alvarado and Restrepo step in. Their scowls say enough.

"What did I do?" the woman protests to no one in particular. "I'm sorry—I didn't mean to offend him. I just wanted to ask him a question."

"People like that just freak me out," Acosta says between gulps of beer. He's shaking. A Marine in wife-beater and sunglasses passes by. They glower at each other. "Fucking jarhead," Acosta mutters.

"It's almost like whenever people see Robert, they're forced to say something," Restrepo adds. "And they always have to include something about themselves—that they're for or against the war. Pretty soon, it's no longer Robert we're talking about—it's themselves."

After the woman leaves, the three resume playing pool. No one bothers him again, and Acosta relaxes. No more war talk. He laughs and jokes. And he kicks the shit out of everyone.

Then he suddenly remembers something.

"One time, I visited a smoke shop in Santa Ana just after I returned from Walter Reed, and some guy looks at my arm and starts talking to me about war," he says. "I just wanted to buy some cigarettes, but the guy starts asking me questions: 'Why do you think the troops are there? What do you think about the war?'—all these things.When I asked him where he was from, he said, 'Baghdad,' as if he was expecting something from me, a political conversation."

Alvarado is flirting with a lady friend. "He says he'll get a ride home," Acosta shrugs. He continues his thought. "The smoke-shop guy wanted to talk about politics. Well, it wasn't going to happen. You're not going to mix politics with a guy with one arm."

* * *

That night, Acosta also revealed to Restrepo and Alvarado that he was joining Operation Truth. For the next couple of months, Acosta and other Iraq War veterans will visit college campuses across the country, lecturing students on the struggles troops face in Iraq. The day Acosta attended that Beverly Hills fund-raiser, he had just flown back from Washington, D.C., where he and other Operation Truth members held a press conference debuting Acosta's commercial.

As he finishes his interview with NBC News at that Beverly Hills mansion, Paul Rieckhoff arrives. The 29-year-old Iraq War veteran is the president of Operation Truth. He hugs Restrepo.

"Hey, thanks for pulling through at the last minute," he tells her. "Sending him away to Washington and getting him back here at the last moment. I know it was your anniversary and all . . ."

"No, it's okay," Restrepo says. Restrepo and Acosta were supposed to celebrate their one-year anniversary two days ago with a dinner at Ferdussi Taste of Persia near South Coast Plaza.

"I'm the one who had to force him to go," she continues. "I told him that it was his responsibility. He wanted to stay here with me and do all these things together."

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