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Handsome, polite and articulate, Robert Acosta was poised to become his generation's Ron Kovic. Last week, The Ground Truth, a documentary about Iraq War veterans struggling to adjust to civilian life, opened in theaters nationwide. Acosta was one of the soldiers profiled, and he figured to be among its best advertisements.
But he won't do publicity for the film. In fact, Acosta has decided to drop out of the Iraq anti-war movement altogether.
"I feel really bad, I honestly do," Acosta says about not doing publicity for The Ground Truth. "But I can't do this anymore. I'm getting to that point that it's not making me feel good talking about it. It's about time for me to chill."
In 2003, the 20-year-old was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., recuperating from injuries suffered during an ambush near Baghdad International Airport (see "Hail the Hesitant Hero," Nov. 11, 2004). A grenade flung by a teenager into Acosta's Humvee blew off Acosta's right arm, shattered his left leg, twisted his right foot 180 degrees and riddled his body with shrapnel.
National and international media quickly picked up his story: a kid from the rough streets of Santa Ana trying to literally piece his life back together. The media frenzy increased after Acosta returned to Santa Ana and joined Operation Truth, an organization of Iraq War veterans that lobbies for better treatment of troops (it has since renamed itself Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America). For the next two years, Acosta barnstormed across the United States, telling his story, speaking out against the Iraq War and advocating for Iraq War veterans. One of his more memorable accomplishments was pressuring the Department of Veteran Affairs to better fund disabled vets after his plight appeared in the Washington Post.
Acosta remains proud of his time speaking out against the Iraq War but says his decision to drop out was months in the making. For starters, "I didn't want to do this forever. I was waiting for another guy to carry the torch. I didn't want to be that soldier who lost his arm in the war and speaks out against it."
Fewer Iraq War veterans, however, have publicly spoken out against the war than Acosta expected. "I talk to my buddies that are still over there, or that just returned, and everyone says the morale is lower than ever," he says. "But no one says much. They're just too frustrated. No one cares about the war anymore."
"People forgot," Acosta adds, audibly upset. "Oh, we knew it was going to happen. When we were out there, we knew that Americans would quickly forget. It happened in Afghanistan, and those guys are still getting fucked up."
So Acosta stayed with it—dined with celebrities, attended Sundance (where an early edition of The Ground Truth drew much buzz), posed for pictures in Maximand agreed to more profiles.
"I thought that by talking about it, I could get better, but the memories didn't go away, and that scared me," he says. "Putting it out there all the time gets tiring. It sucks. It's always there and I don't always want to think about it, and talking about it won't get it out of my head. I'm trying to live a normal life."
What ultimately convinced Acosta to drop out was this summer's Israel-Hezbollah conflict. Seeing the images on television "brought everything back. I started having bad dreams again," dreams in which Acosta relives the Baghdad ambush. One night, while visiting his parents in Oregon, Acosta flailed about so violently during his sleep that he kicked a hole in his brother's bedroom wall.
Acosta has no plans for the immediate future. He's tried to apply for jobs, but his aching body doesn't allow for much vigorous movement or idle sitting. He recently purchased 10 acres in rural Oregon and talks about renovating a two-story cabin on the property. Recently, he went on a road trip with a friend to Vancouver.
Mostly, though, Acosta copes with the injuries that still ache three years later. With the seasons changing, Acosta's left leg will begin to stiffen—the leg held together by a steel rod, screws and shrapnel.
"It's becoming routine," Acosta says with a shrug as he prepares to hobble five blocks from his Long Beach apartment to the city's grimy oceanfront. "Every fall, it happens. It hurts, but everything that was new to me three years ago is becoming a part of my life.
"I think I'm going to be one of those grumpy-ass old vets," Acosta adds, half-jokingly. "I remember how my grandpa [an Army World War II veteran] was—mad at the world. And every time I talk to my friends who served in Iraq, we laugh that we're the same way—frustrated. Angry. And it sucks."