A Soldier Speaks: Robert J. Acosta

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of profiles of some of the tens of thousands of Iraq War veterans who have come home bearing the scars of battle – emotional and physical wounds that may never heal unless the nation pays them the attention and care that they deserve. We at AlterNet believe that in an election defined by a deep and bitter partisan divide, it is the one issue that can and must bring us all together as Americans.

Robert Acosta was glad when he joined the army straight out of high school. “If it weren’t for the army, I’d probably be locked up right now,” says the Santa Ana, Calif., native. He was stationed in Germany when his unit, the 1st Battalion 501st Regiment, 1st Armored Division, was called up for duty in Iraq.

Robert was 19 years old.

On July 13, 2003, his life changed forever. Robert and a buddy were driving down the road – a quick trip off the military base at the Baghdad International Airport to pick up a couple of cans of soda – when a grenade came flying through the window of his Humvee. When he grabbed it to throw it out the window, it slipped from his fingers. He picked it up again – and the grenade exploded.

He now wears a prosthesis on his right arm, which ends in a two-pronged claw, and his left leg is completely shattered.

The gentle, soft-spoken 21-year old is slowly trying to build a new life as a civilian in New York. But he hasn't forgotten the friends that he left behind, still fighting for their lives in Iraq. Robert is one of the Iraqi veterans featured in the latest Operation Truth ad, calling the Bush administration to account for making a spurious case for war.

He spoke to AlterNet about the war, his hopes and fears, and the hard road ahead.

Is there one memory from the war that still stays with you?

When I was injured, someone threw a hand grenade, and it blew up in my hand. And I was conscious from that moment on. I didn't lose consciousness at all so I remember seeing my hand just gone and my foot was turned completely backwards. I remember seeing all that blood.

And I see it now when I go to bed at night. It's one of those things that will stick with me forever.

When you look back, how has this war changed you?

Mentally, it's made me a lot stronger. I've learned to appreciate life and everything that goes with it a lot more. Physically, of course, I've lost my right hand and my leg is heavily damaged.

But I think it's been a learning experience. Even the four months that I was in Iraq, I've learned so much about myself and about life. I've learned to cherish what I have – like my parents. I almost never saw them again. You don't know what you got until it's almost gone.

What are your hopes and fears now that you look at the future?

I hope that I'll find better ways to deal with this [my injuries] because it's really, really hard.

I hope that one day all these soldiers will come home. These guys are getting so messed up over there and it's just not cool at all.

I hope one day I can be a teacher, because that's what I want to do.

And when it comes to fears, yeah, I really, really, fear being alone. I so don't want to be by myself. I need to have people surrounding me, have this big family. I have a girlfriend now and she helps me out so much. She's stuck by my side throughout this whole experience. I can't imagine being without her, or being alone.

If you had five minutes with the president – whomever it may be on Nov. 3, George Bush or John Kerry – what would you say to him?

Wow, that's a powerful question. I'd say, "Look, I was 19 years old when I went over there, and now my life has changed forever. And there are guys younger than me that are getting hurt – and in ways that is going to stick with them for the rest of their lives.

"Just think about what's going on. Think about the parents and what they have to go through when they get that phone call. Or the soldier who is injured so badly, and his entire life is completely changed – it's so stressful, it's so hard."

They don't understand because they're not out there. So I'd try and get the point across: the numbers have faces behind them.

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