Hail the Hesitant Hero

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

* * *

Shortly after returning from Walter Reed, Acosta and Alvarado moved into a Tustin apartment. Acosta tries to stay here as little as possible. It's a stereotypical bachelor pad: dirty dishes, no décor save for a fish tank, a Sony PlayStation and DVDs strewn around the living-room floor. Friends from his Santa Ana street days still pass by, looking for trouble; one was recently stabbed at a party. Fast-food wrappers litter the coffee table. One time, an NBC News crew looked into the apartment's refrigerator for some water, only to find a bong.

Acosta is showing some pictures of Iraq on a CD-ROM. Most are of random soldiers. Some smile. Some flex. Some look haggard. One holds a gold AK-47 he swiped from Uday Hussein's collection. "He's a fat fuck." Acosta curses at nearly everyone who appears on the CD-ROM as he clicks on the remote from picture to picture.

"I couldn't stand him." Click."He's a cock sucker." Click."I spit in his face once—he's a fucking cock." Click.

"He tried to be cool like the other sergeants, but I told him to fuck off." Click."There's another fucking cock." Click.

A blood-drenched man lies on the ground.

"I remember that guy," he mentions matter-of-factly. "He tried to get a friend of mine, so I got him." Click.

More pictures flash on the television: highway markers, more corpses, bombed-out palaces. And kids. Lots of kids.

"I felt worst for the kids," he remarks as a grinning boy appears onscreen. "You'd be in the middle of the road, there would be nothing for miles around, and you'd see this three-year-old on the road. It was terrible. But we couldn't do anything—we had to keep on driving."

More pictures: soldiers, dead, stray dogs, Acosta smiling with the man who would save him.

By the time Acosta arrived in Iraq, most of what President George W. Bush deemed "major combat operations" were already over. Acosta's unit was supposed to help in the reconstruction—build schools, install electricity, create a potable water system. But those operations were quick, and there was a lot of down time.

"We'd do stupid stuff to kill time," he says. "Guys would go into museums and libraries and just knock shit down or steal stuff. Me and my buddies were in Baghdad right after it was 'safe' and broke into the airport and began driving airplane stairs, crashing them into one another. Another time, when we were further down south, some guys blew up a water buffalo—that was fucked-up shit. I mean, what did the animal ever do to us?"

Acosta's favorite Iraq moment, though, was the time he and some friends broke into a rental depot, hot-wired some cars and began a demolition derby. Acosta drove a Toyota Tercel. It seemed just like the old days in Santa Ana, when he and his friends broke into buildings for kicks. "We were worried about the landmines, but fuck it, there wasn't anything else to do. We were all 20-years-olds with nothing to do."

He keeps clicking through pictures.

"A lot of things I didn't even take pictures—there're some things you don't take pictures of. We once installed electrical wires for a school, thinking we were the shit. A couple of days later we return, and someone had ripped everything out. They [the Iraqi people] wanted absolutely nothing to do with us. I was pissed—thought they were ungrateful—but I understood. I mean, how would I feel if people from another country invaded my city?

"And some of the kids would climb the steps with knives trying to stab us," Acosta continued. "They were about my brother's age—13 or so. You'd hit them; they'd fall off. It's hard to do, but you do it. It's hard to show a soft side but you have to protect yourself and your buddies."

The DVD ends; it's quiet.

"That's how I lost my hand."

* * *

After returning to Santa Ana in October, Acosta was interviewed in The Orange County Register, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, and even Melbourne, Australia's Sunday Herald Sun. He appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CBS' 48 Hours, NBC Nightly News, even the BBC. Howard Zinn mentioned Acosta in an article decrying the Iraq War. The city of Santa Ana held a homecoming ceremony on the steps of the Old County Courthouse.

At first, Acosta spoke out of politeness. But the constant attention—the Registercalled him a "reluctant hero"—wore on him. He wanted to talk about his buddies, how the Army was screwing them over by not providing enough supplies; reporters and strangers wanted to talk about heroism and his Purple Heart, which he kept stashed away in a See's Candy bag. For the Iraq War's one-year anniversary, The Oprah Winfrey Show wanted to fly Acosta to Chicago for a taping and talk about his life. Acosta refused. Instead, he ran away to Restrepo in Spain, where she was studying abroad as a UCLA student. From early April to late June, they backpacked across Europe. It was the first time they ever spent time together as a couple.

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