Hail the Hesitant Hero

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

While in Europe, Acosta's body began failing him. Constant nightmares stole his sleep. The 12 pieces of shrapnel still embedded in Acosta's body bore further inward. And all the walking and touring around Europe, while reinvigorating his soul, ultimately ruined his leg.

Both legs give Acosta problems, but it's the left leg that doctors nearly amputated and is his worst physical malady. "I'm still adjusting to not having a right arm," Acosta says, "but my leg will never improve." The grenade shattered it from kneecap to foot, requiring multiple reconstructive surgeries that included a steel rod to steady the bone and a skin graft to close a stubborn hole on his heel. Shortly after returning home from Walter Reed, doctors broke the toes in his left foot and placed wires on them so they would mend properly. It was Restrepo's job to massage Acosta's toes whenever they began inadvertently curling inward.

Nowadays, Acosta walks with a subtle but painful limp. Doctors say he'll never run again. In the months since Europe, flab has riddled a once-chiseled body; it's too painful to do much physical activity. But while in Europe, Acosta walked. He encountered anti-American graffiti and anti-war protests. He got drunk with Manto in Germany. He talked to his buddies in Iraq, who complained about dwindling morale and supplies.

Before he left for Spain, Acosta lukewarmly endorsed the war as "necessary to drive Saddam out." But hearing the problems of his buddies triggered a change. Not to mention the horrific March 11 Madrid bombings that killed nearly 200 people. Restrepo was supposed to be on one of those trains but decided not to go out that night.

"That's when my awakening happened," Acosta says. "Before, I would say, 'I don't regret [going to Iraq]. I did my job.' But this war was following both of us. I wasn't going to let it run my life anymore."

A couple of weeks after returning from Europe, Acosta and Restrepo listened to Rieckhoff, the Operation Truth president, talking on KPFK-FM 90.7. The following day, Acosta sent Rieckhoff an e-mail and told him about buddies left behind at Walter Reed with the same injuries Acosta possessed but who received half of the disability payment the Army allotted to Acosta. He also mentioned Manto: after saving Acosta's life, the Army dishonorably discharged Manto for driving off base without permission, the very same mission where Acosta and Manto were ambushed. If Acosta hadn't lost his arm, the Army told him, he would've been discharged as well. Instead, according to Acosta, "[Manto's] superiors stated that his punishment was rightfully severe and that my punishment was the loss of my right hand and I 'learned my lesson.'"

"Personally, I am against this war," Acosta wrote to Rieckhoff, "but stand by my friends who are serving in Iraq. I definitely want to collaborate with you to raise awareness on the truth of this war. I would greatly appreciate a response. Thank you for your time."

A couple of days later, Rieckhoff responded to Acosta's e-mail, and then they talked on the phone. Over the next several months, the two developed a relationship. Rieckhoff had found a face for Operation Truth. That's how the pair ended up in Beverly Hills.

"We want all veterans in," Rieckhoff says. The former tight end is six-foot-three and easily 250 pounds of marbled flesh. His piercing blue eyes are beautiful complements to a smooth head that looks as if it's never hosted a hair. As Acosta greets another reporter in the Beverly Hills mansion, Rieckhoff unconsciously crushes an empty Diet Coke can. "The government is telling us everything is rosy but it's not. From the get-go, Robert was like, 'Look, I'm ready to go. I'm ready to talk.' He has the full package. He has a thick ass, and he's ready to take the flak. People are so desensitized that when they hear real courage, they don't know how to react. He has the fire. You just need that one guy, then other people start coming out of their shell.

"I mean, people are already sending me e-mail about Robert's commercial—one guy said he should run for governor," Rieckhoff continues. "He's honest, sincere, people see a little bit of themselves in him. He follows his heart—not many people do that anymore."

Wealthy activists are now entering the mansion, most wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "War Begins with W." Before hitting the expansive snack tray—there are blue quesadillas, hummus and veggies—they approach Acosta. They look at him, hug him and thank him. Some cry. Acosta thanks everyone. He tells his story over and over.

"Just listen to Robert for five minutes," Rieckhoff remarks with genuine respect, "and see how everyone listens."

* * *

They didn't always listen. Around March of this year, Acosta visited the Long Beach Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Before picking up his mother, Acosta smoked a couple of cigarettes at his Tustin apartment and cursed the VA's doctors.

"They're a bunch of dicks," he said. "They're slow. They were giving my mom hassles the last time we went." He lights up another cigarette, his third of this early spring Tuesday morning, with an Army-log Zippo that a Vietnam veteran gave him. He thumbs through Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi, a collection of writings from a Baghdad blogger whose online ruminations about Saddam Hussein, American imperialism and Coldplay became a cult secret during the Iraq War. "It's something I thought would be interesting, so I snagged it," Acosta remarks. "Seems like someone I would like to hang around with—he's sarcastic and young."

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