Hail the Hesitant Hero

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

Until now, Patricia has remained silent. "Will you sign for him?" a doctor asks Patricia.

"No, he can sign for himself," she replies. "It's good for him."

The doctor seems surprised. "With his hook?" the doctor says.

"No, with his left hand," Patricia responds, as her son slowly but carefully signs his name.

Robert and Patricia leave the VA hospital. "I trip out because everyone stares at me," Acosta confesses as he lights a cigarette. He takes a puff.

"They're trying to help, but they just don't realize how to treat someone," Patricia adds. She takes the cigarette from Robert and sneaks a puff. "They want to give him the best, but they don't treat him like a person. They treat him like an arm."

* * *

The Beverly Hills mansion is quiet. Ed Begley Jr. sits on a couch with his wife. Daphne Zuniga entertains people; former California First Lady Sharon Davis is also here, and Jeff Bridges will arrive shortly.

It's time for Acosta's commercial. Lights off, volume up.

"I was called to serve in Iraq because there were weapons of mass destruction," Acosta says as he faces a camera. Only his upper body appears. "But they weren't there."

His Army ID and uniform flash onscreen. Mournful violins fill the room.

"They said Iraq had something to do with 9-11," he continues. A flag now hangs behind Acosta. A map of Iraq fades in. "But the connection wasn't there."

"They told us we'd win the war and be home soon," he continues. A picture of a smiling, much-skinnier Acosta in Iraq comes out. "But we're still there."

"So when people ask me where my arm went," Acosta begins, as the camera cuts to him taking off the sock that covers what remains of his arm, "I try to find the words. But they're not there." The camera swoops up. Acosta is angry. He leaves his stool.

"I like that look that Robert gives at the end of the commercial," Rieckhoff confessed earlier. "Like, 'Don't fuck with me.'"

The room remains silent as Operation Truth's information flashes onscreen. Then the applause deafens.

The hostess begins a short speech. Soon, Acosta will speak. He's nervous.

"I feel so out of place, man, because I'm so ghetto," he says and half-laughs. Then he grabs Restrepo and kisses her on the cheek. She nudges Acosta to the front as the woman goes on and on about how Acosta "has suffered a great deal in life and has suffered for life." She mentions Santa Ana—"he believed he would end up locked up like his friends."

Acosta approaches the front of the room to further applause. A big smile creases his face, but he looks down. He's blushing. He holds his claw.

"You don't hear much from us; you hear from the generals in the air-conditioned Humvees," he begins. He thanks everyone for their support and praises Rieckhoff, who stands next to him, beaming.

Acosta wraps up his short speech. A woman whispers something in his ear. Acosta winces.

"I'm never going to be the same," he suddenly proclaims calmly, sadly, proudly. "Every day for the rest of my life, I have to put this thing on." He jerks up his prosthetic. "I hate to put this thing on. I hate it. But I have to put this thing on. And I'm going to do it every day."

After about a half-hour more of mingling, Acosta and Restrepo leave the mansion. Acosta lights up a cigarette. They're now heading to Santa Monica for a screening of The Ground Truth: The Human Cost of War, an anti-war documentary in which Acosta makes an appearance.

"After he came back from Iraq, he couldn't articulate all that anger he had," Restrepo says as they walk to Acosta's Chevy Trail Blazer. "He didn't know how to channel it. He could've been ignorant. All the press attention just bothered him because they wanted to make him into a hero. Now it's different. He's doing it on his own terms.

"I encourage it," Restrepo adds. "He's doing more for himself this way than if he's just here in Santa Ana. 'Oh, there's that old hero,' people would say. To be called a hero, it doesn't give you purpose—it gives you a spotlight. It's a momentary false recognition. But when you're speaking out—not someone stuffing words in your mouth, just speaking out—that gives you purpose."

* * *

After the Beverly Hills fund-raiser, Acosta barnstormed. He appeared on Air America radio and met Janeane Garofalo, whom he described as "kinda boring." Crowds gave him standing ovations at Temple University and New Mexico State. Radio stations across the Northeast interviewed him. Donations for Operation Truth, meanwhile, rolled in thanks to his commercial, which was mentioned in newspapers around the world. The Los Angeles Times called the spot "riveting."

On Oct. 31, Acosta returned to Tustin for a couple of days. "Last Halloween, I was at Walter Reed, depressed," he says, dressed in a Jimi Hendrix-ish billowy shirt, luxuriant brown wig and a shiny peace sign. "I want to celebrate today. Besides, I need to relax. It's been hard doing this."

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