Hail the Hesitant Hero

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

"I am not anybody's propaganda ploy, well, except my own."

Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi

The day Robert Acosta would finally rest was July 13, 2003. The 20-year-old Santa Ana native had slogged through three months of keeping the peace in postwar Iraq as an ammunitions specialist for the First Battalion of the 501st Regiment in the Army's First Armored Division. He had three more months to go. He had killed his share of Iraqis, had seen enough mangled bodies and lives and sand to last a thousand deployments. But today would be different. Today, Acosta wanted to enjoy his Sunday off by lounging near the base pool at Baghdad International Airport. But first, he wanted a Coke.

Acosta hopped into a Humvee with his friend, Anthony Manto. They drove through downtown Baghdad to a road where merchants hawked cheap soda and ice. Acosta and his buddy armed themselves with flak jackets, helmets and a fully equipped Humvee. Acosta, a M16-A2 rifle hanging from his shoulder, rode shotgun.

After about two hours of sitting in choking traffic, Acosta and Manto saw the ice man. They slowed. A young boy—maybe 13—approached. Acosta wasn't surprised and patted his pockets for some candy. But then Acosta noticed the boy clench something in his fist.

The grenade twirled into the Humvee, bounced off the windshield and dropped onto the vehicle's floor. Acosta immediately lunged after it. He grabbed the grenade, crouched down, wound up and readied to throw it out.

But as his right hand stretched behind his head, his knuckles smacked the Humvee's roof. The grenade fell out and clanged around the floor. Grimacing in pain, Robert feverishly searched for it—it was next to his legs. He grabbed it again and now just tried to flick it away.

* * *

Robert Acosta needs a smoke. He's standing outside a Beverly Hills estate on a warm October afternoon, avoiding a fund-raiser being held in his honor. He's nervous. He's made as many sartorial deferments as possible to the event. Instead of the rumpled Sublime or JackassT-shirts he favors, Acosta is wearing a white guayabera long enough to mask most of his tattoos, although the "Gemini" inscribed in cursive on his left bicep occasionally sneaks out of his sleeve. He tamed the facial hair down to an immaculate, mustache-free goatee, its light-brown tint complementing Acosta's hazel eyes and short, somewhat-kinky hair. But he kept the checkered Vans, the shoes he vows to sport forever, damn the steel rod holding his left leg together. The metal claw he now calls his right hand is held in place by a cup placed over the gnarled stump that was once the halfway point of his forearm.

And the cigarettes. He's supposed to be quitting, but Acosta lights up a Camel. He smiles at his girlfriend, 21-year-old Sandy Restrepo. "This place is pretty snazzy," Acosta says and laughs.

"I thought you gave up smoking," Restrepo playfully snaps.

He swigs an energy drink.

"Yeah, well, it helps me relax . . ." he begins, but a shrill voice interrupts.

"Robert?" a socialite with a thick Eastern European accent asks. "Are you Robert?" He nods. She jumps. "We're ready for you! Hey, come on in, we're ready for you!"

She hugs Acosta and acknowledges Restrepo. As the three walk into the mansion, she grasps onto Acosta's claw as if they're about to waltz. "We got him!" she shrieks to a producer, who is just as ecstatic to see him.

"Hey, my man!" she exclaims before she embraces Acosta. "We're calling you a rock star nowadays! Greatcommercial!"


Outside Baghdad, 2003

"Yeah, my buddies are calling me Hollywood," Acosta admits with a blushing grin. He puts out his cigarette.

Acosta is here tonight as a member of Operation Truth, a nonprofit organization started by Iraq War veterans to highlight the concerns of soldiers fighting America's latest war. Just a couple of days earlier in a Los Angeles studio, Acosta filmed a commercial for Operation Truth that has since aired on CNN and spread across the Internet. But tonight, a group of actors and Westside elites will screen the commercial with Acosta in attendance. They are ready to give Operation Truth thousands of dollars.

Acosta maintains he's just another former soldier looking to reassemble his life, but that's a humble man for you. When Acosta first returned to the United States after his injury, when he thought about killing himself, he wanted the world to leave him be. But as he enters the Beverly Hills mansion, the NBC News crew rushes up to shake his good hand and whisper "Thank you," and he doesn't run away like before. In the year and a half since that July day, everyone has wanted a piece of him—TV producers and The Orange County Register and Oprah and OC Weekly and military men and anti-war activists and strangers all intent on using Acosta as the personification of willing hero with the resolve to give a limb for the USA or tragic victim of imperialistic folly. Acosta is young, handsome and articulate. And he doesn't have half of his arm. In short, he is the face of the Iraq vet—how could you not want a piece of him?

* * *

A couple of weeks before the Beverly Hills fund-raiser, Acosta and Restrepo were at Tustin's Swinging Door for a weeknight billiards session. Acosta lives about three minutes away in a nondescript Tustin apartment with his lifelong friend, Rubén Alvarado. The bar—once deemed one of America's 20 greatest dive bars by Stuff—is his favorite: "Good atmosphere, people leave you alone, and great music from the jukebox. Plus," he adds with a smirk, "if I'm ever too drunk to drive, I can just walk home."

Acosta doesn't want to play pool just yet, so he dares Alvarado to challenge the resident pool shark. Alvarado takes on the bet—and loses in about two minutes. "Dude, he took you to school!" Acosta yells, as Jimi Hendrix blitzkriegs through "Fire" in the background. Alvarado, ever mischievous, yells back, "Let's see how well you do."

"Fuck it," Acosta responds. He grabs a cue stick and shakes hands with the shark. The shark glimpses at Acosta's prosthetic. Everyone does. Acosta takes an early lead but loses. Afterward, the shark slaps Acosta on his right shoulder and asks about the injury. Acosta tells the story willingly, and the shark offers a beer.

Acosta racks up the balls for another game when a woman in a black top and jean shorts snakes her way toward him. She's been eyeing him all night. Restrepo does nothing. Everywhere Restrepo and Acosta go, people approach and ask.

The woman snuggles up to Acosta. She strokes his prosthetic in a flitting, sensual manner. Acosta stiffens.

"So," the woman coos, "what happened?"

"Lost it in Iraq," Acosta replies gruffly, almost barking.

"Well, at least it was just your arm, you know. At least you still have your life."

Acosta doesn't respond.

"So, are you voting for Kerry?"

"Kerry's an asshole."

"So you're voting for Bush, then."

"No—Bush is a bigger asshole."

"Well, I guess we just have to go back there and finish the job, right?"

"No, this war is fucked-up." Acosta's eyes dart around for Restrepo, Alvarado, anyone.

"But we have to go back there and finish the job," the woman continues. "Because if we don't . . ." At this point, she begins sawing her hand across her neck.

Acosta turns and stomps to the bar to order another beer. Alvarado and Restrepo step in. Their scowls say enough.

"What did I do?" the woman protests to no one in particular. "I'm sorry—I didn't mean to offend him. I just wanted to ask him a question."

"People like that just freak me out," Acosta says between gulps of beer. He's shaking. A Marine in wife-beater and sunglasses passes by. They glower at each other. "Fucking jarhead," Acosta mutters.

"It's almost like whenever people see Robert, they're forced to say something," Restrepo adds. "And they always have to include something about themselves—that they're for or against the war. Pretty soon, it's no longer Robert we're talking about—it's themselves."

After the woman leaves, the three resume playing pool. No one bothers him again, and Acosta relaxes. No more war talk. He laughs and jokes. And he kicks the shit out of everyone.

Then he suddenly remembers something.

"One time, I visited a smoke shop in Santa Ana just after I returned from Walter Reed, and some guy looks at my arm and starts talking to me about war," he says. "I just wanted to buy some cigarettes, but the guy starts asking me questions: 'Why do you think the troops are there? What do you think about the war?'—all these things.When I asked him where he was from, he said, 'Baghdad,' as if he was expecting something from me, a political conversation."

Alvarado is flirting with a lady friend. "He says he'll get a ride home," Acosta shrugs. He continues his thought. "The smoke-shop guy wanted to talk about politics. Well, it wasn't going to happen. You're not going to mix politics with a guy with one arm."

* * *

That night, Acosta also revealed to Restrepo and Alvarado that he was joining Operation Truth. For the next couple of months, Acosta and other Iraq War veterans will visit college campuses across the country, lecturing students on the struggles troops face in Iraq. The day Acosta attended that Beverly Hills fund-raiser, he had just flown back from Washington, D.C., where he and other Operation Truth members held a press conference debuting Acosta's commercial.

As he finishes his interview with NBC News at that Beverly Hills mansion, Paul Rieckhoff arrives. The 29-year-old Iraq War veteran is the president of Operation Truth. He hugs Restrepo.

"Hey, thanks for pulling through at the last minute," he tells her. "Sending him away to Washington and getting him back here at the last moment. I know it was your anniversary and all . . ."

"No, it's okay," Restrepo says. Restrepo and Acosta were supposed to celebrate their one-year anniversary two days ago with a dinner at Ferdussi Taste of Persia near South Coast Plaza.

"I'm the one who had to force him to go," she continues. "I told him that it was his responsibility. He wanted to stay here with me and do all these things together."

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.

* * *

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.

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."

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."

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."

He looks at Alvarado, who's dressed as the Phantom of the Opera. "I need to chill, man," he says. "Want to get good vibes tonight—get a good aura."

Acosta, Alvarado, Restrepo and a friend visit the Swingin' Door in costume. Unlike their last visit, no one is here tonight save for a couple of regulars and two Marines. Pool is free in honor of Halloween, so Acosta and friends have the tables to themselves.

But soon a short, stocky, redheaded Marine challenges Acosta to a game. After a while, it's apparent something is up. He keeps taunting Acosta's mistakes. When it's his turn, the Marine delays the game for five-minute chunks by taking cell-phone calls. When Acosta complains, the Marine ignores him.

Alvarado glowers. Restrepo makes small talk with the buxom bartender, who just threw away the redhead's drink because he's "an asshole." Acosta tries to keep a positive face, complimenting the Marine on his shots even while trouncing him.

But even Acosta tires of the Marine. He goes outside with Alvarado and Restrepo for some smokes. The redhead soon joins them.

"Hey, I have to admit something," the redhead slurs to Acosta. "When you walked into the bar and we saw you with that long hair, we were ready to kick your ass. We thought that claw was a fake."

Acosta doesn't miss a beat. "Why didn't you?"

The redhead doesn't respond. Instead, he goes on a long diatribe about Acosta's heroism and lectures Alvarado and Restrepo about how they can never understand Iraq because "you weren't there."

"I salute you, Robert," the Marine continues. "You gave your arm for a good cause."

"I respect your opinion, man," Acosta responds, "but I don't agree with you."

The Marine's glazed eyes sharpen. "You can't believe that, man! You were there! You were there!"

"I was there," Acosta says. "I lost my hand after a grenade blew up in my Humvee. You want to see my scars? You want to see my stump?"

The Marine refuses.

An argument ensues between the redhead and Restrepo for the next 20 minutes. When Acosta tries to visit the restroom to take a piss, the Marine follows him.

"You know what it is, man?" he yells at Acosta. "I fucking hate you. You're fucking Army. And you know the truth but you do this shit."

Now Acosta sounds tired. "I respect your opinion, man, but I don't agree with it."

The drive back is silent. Acosta drops Restrepo off at her house. When he returns to his Trail Blazer, he immediately strips off his shirt and prosthetic, angrily shoving the latter into the back seat.

"Fuck this!" Acosta yells as he speeds through the dark streets of northern Santa Ana toward home. He dabs at his eyes. "I don't need this; I don't want to do this. I just don't want this anymore! There is no reason why I should do this—I should just drop it all and move on with my life. Relax."

Acosta drives past the Swingin' Door. For a fleeting moment, he ponders storming into the bar and kicking Marine ass. But he keeps driving, finally arriving at his apartment.

"You know what upsets me the most? The guy. Not even what he said—what he doesn't know. The guy left Iraq in April of last year, when the Iraqis still loved us, when there was little danger. My platoon went in when they hated us. That jarhead goes back in January. Boy, will he ever get a rude awakening."

The moon shines off Acosta's Trail Blazer. Tomorrow, he's scheduled to appear on a Chicago-area radio show. He laughs, puts out his Camel and limps down the street toward sleep.

For more information on Operation Truth, visit their website, optruth.org.

GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

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