Hail the Hesitant Hero

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

As he travels through various Santa Ana neighborhoods on the way to pick up his mother, Acosta offers a running commentary. "I knew a guy who lived there—he's now in jail for killing an old man," he says. "That's where some gang members jumped me because I didn't claim with anyone. That tag right there? I know the kid. He just needs to take it somewhere where it counts. He's wasting all his talent."

"They're used to older people at Long Beach," Patricia Acosta adds when Robert picks her up. She knows: she would take her father, a World War II veteran, to the VA for dialysis treatments and became familiar with the hospital's maze of aisles and consultants. "Robert was the first victim of the Iraq War they treated. The doctors were all surprised when he arrived. They were taking pictures of him. They're so used to treating older men with long-ago wounds, so the first time the doctors saw Robert, it was like, 'Oh, my God! A real grenade wound! He has shrapnel! Let's check him out.' They met us at the door. 'Mr. Acosta, we've been expecting you,' they told him. It's a wonder they didn't have a parade."

It was the same at Walter Reed, Acosta adds. "I remember Donald Rumsfeld passed by and said, 'Thank you for your service.' That asshole. [Former NFL linebacker] Kevin Greene was really caring. But Bruce Willis was a dick. I had a chance to meet President Bush, but I told my doctors I would rather do nothing than talk to that asshole."

The person Patricia remembers most was California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Schwarzenegger comes into the hospital one day, and you know he didn't know what to say or that he didn't expect this," Patricia says. "When you hear that soldiers are injured, you think scrapes. But you see the scars, the missing body parts. You are speechless. He [Schwarzenegger] got this look on his face. It hit him how serious this was. He didn't know what to say."

* * *

After taking the 22 freeway, Patricia and Robert enter the VA's parking lot. It's filled with handicapped spots. "I'm going to get those one of these days," Acosta deadpans, putting out his cigarette.

Patricia and Robert sign in and sit down. A heavy-set Chicano walks by. He stops. "Hey, Robert!" he shouts. Acosta hugs the man. "When I came back, I hadn't seen him in a couple of years," Acosta explains. "He's the uncle of my friend. I told him about how I had lost my arm, and he said, 'Don't trip, man. I lost my leg.' He lost it to diabetes. I never even knew."

"I saved his life, man," the Chicano explains afterward. "He was a good kid, him and his friends. They were all right, pero se junta la bolita [but they would get together] and they'd get into their mischief. I told him, 'Don't be a vato, man. Join the service.' But look at him now. He lost his arm. Now I feel bad."

They talk. The man's nephew is in jail for murder.

A doctor calls Acosta. Robert and Patricia follow the doctor into a small, chart-covered conference room, where three men with pencils and notepads form a half-circle around Acosta. Patricia sits to the side.

"There's a terminal device that was bent," the doctor says as he picks up Acosta's claw. Another doctor grabs it and tries bending it into shape as the doctor begins lecturing the room about new technologies for prosthetics. Two more doctors enter, making it five in total. "Robert, take this." Acosta grabs a prosthetic with his left hand. "See how the electrode is pushed beyond the recess," the doctor tells the others. "The switch, the arms, look through them."

Another doctor enters.

"What are your needs now?" the team leader asks Acosta.

"It's just what I put them through," Acosta replies. "I've been going to the gym a lot, and that's when I messed up the [claw]." One doctor suggests Acosta use his electric arm, the one with the fake hand, but Acosta complains, saying it fits him too loose. "Here, try on this new arm sock," suggests a double amputee. Everyone cocks their heads as Acosta tries it on.

Another doctor enters. "This is Mr. Acosta," the lead doctor tells the new doctor. "He lost his—"

"I remember Mr. Acosta," the new doctor says.

"Stand up, straight ahead," he tells Acosta. "Hold your hands forward." Everyone takes notes. "I was never a big fan of sockets," he tells his colleagues. "A gapping problem on a passive, the other one is gone. They could just rim it down in the back."

Another doctor enters. He pulls out a catalog and shows it to Acosta. "This one is supported by springs, not by rubber bands," he says. "Can you stick around for a while? We have to take care of others, but if you're pressed for time, just let us know."

Acosta puts on the claw. "This is going to be a life experience for you," says one of the doctors. "You're going to learn how to do different things; you're going to learn how to use different arms."

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