Hail the Hesitant Hero

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

She smiles. "He's just a big softie."

* * *

That was the first thing that attracted Restrepo to Acosta, well, that and that "he was this tall, hot guy."

It was a Saturday night in February 2002. Restrepo was cruising with a couple of girlfriends down Bristol Street when Acosta hopped in. The two clicked, although it was in a wrong-side-of-the-tracks sort of way. Restrepo, then a freshman at UC Santa Cruz, was a graduate of a prestigious Rhode Island boarding school and was visiting her native Santa Ana for the weekend. Acosta, by contrast, dropped out of Santa Ana High School after about a year and eked out a GED in 2001. Shortly afterward, he joined the Army Reserves.

When Restrepo challenged Acosta's profession, he became defensive. "The Army's helping me out with a paycheck," he told her. "It's keeping me out of trouble. If it wasn't for that, I'd probably be in jail."

They spent most of the night talking at a party. The conversations continued throughout her spring semester. Feelings blossomed, but although they liked each other, Acosta and Restrepo refused to commit. Acosta was shipping out to Germany in May. "Who wants a boyfriend in another continent?" Restrepo asked then as well as today. "We both knew that we really liked each other, but we could wait. It had potential."

They continued to talk while Acosta was in Germany. When he shipped off to Iraq in April 2003, they communicated via snail mail until the letters stopped after Acosta went into combat. So after a brief visit during spring break in 2002, Restrepo didn't see Acosta for more than a year. Until after the explosion.

* * *

When the grenade detonated, it blew a hole through the Humvee. Blood gushed out of what remained of Acosta's right forearm. Four to five inches of bone were exposed; the skin around it, coal black, flopped about; the thumb dangled, and the other fingers had vanished. His right foot was bent completely backward; his left leg was shattered. Shrapnel riddled his body from his leg to his shoulder. But Acosta didn't lose consciousness. He saw Manto shoot at the kid, killing him, then crashing through barricades with what remained of the Humvee, desperately trying to find a safe spot. An Iraqi man approached, offering help. Manto shot him in the stomach.

At one point, Acosta pulled back his head and shut his eyes. "Get me the fuck out of here," he remembers telling Manto repeatedly—that is, when he wasn't begging Manto to tell his mom that he loved her. Manto thought Acosta was dying and screamed at him to keep his eyes open. "Later on," Acosta says, "I told him I did that because I didn't want to see my arm, I didn't want to mess myself up forever."

When they finally returned to base, Manto carried Acosta on his back to a transport. The Army airlifted him to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near the Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where they prepped Acosta for immediate treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Restrepo was at a Sav-On the day after it happened, looking for a birthday card. She ran into Alvarado, who was looking for a card as well—for Acosta. The two had known each other for years, so she asked about Acosta.

"He told me about an injury—Rubén didn't know too much about it himself." So she visited Acosta's parents in their Santa Ana home. Acosta's mom, Patricia, wasn't there; she had already flown out to Germany.

When Acosta's father spoke to Patricia later that day, he told her about some Sandy girl who asked about their son. Patricia told Robert that night. The next day, Acosta called Restrepo.

"He really doesn't remember any of it," Restrepo says with a forced chuckle. "He was so drugged-up—but he told me his arm was gone over and over."

She wanted to fly to Germany to visit a boy she hadn't seen in more than a year. Her immigrant parents wouldn't allow it. But when Acosta arrived in late July at Walter Reed, Restrepo visited within days.

"It wasn't even as a love interest at the time," she says. "I wanted to be there for him as a friend. I wanted him to know I would still be there for him—injury or not. When I first visited him, he looked so small. He was all bandaged up. I remember he always kept the bed sheet over his right arm because he was embarrassed. I just tried to joke around to make him feel better."

Restrepo stayed with Acosta for about a week, through nights and operations and thunderstorms that caused Acosta to break out in cold sweats since the noise and flashes reminded him of Iraq. She returned home but called him every day. When Acosta flew back to Santa Ana in mid-October, they agreed to become a couple. They were in love but also needed each other to confront Acosta's new life—a new life of reporters, TV producers, war supporters, protestors and admirers was driving him insane.

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