By Leon Worden, SCVNews.com
Rudy Acosta was a Santa Clarita boy through and through. Born at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, he attended Santa Clarita Christian School and enlisted in the Army as a medic. He wanted to save lives and become a surgeon.
He shipped off to Afghanistan in the summer of 2010. When he came back home for a visit in January, he came back a man.
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Two months later he was dead.
He didn’t step on a land mine. He didn’t get shot by a sniper. He didn’t fall in a firefight.
Rudy and his fellow soldiers were back at their base – safely, by all rights, inside the wire. They were preparing for a mission, cleaning their guns, when an Afghan insurgent masquerading as a protector opened fire on the troops he was hired to guard.
Rudy may have saved one last life as he fell. Reports suggest he may have stepped into a bullet intended for another solider – a woman who credits Rudy for the fact that she is alive today to raise her own family.
Dante Acosta is a man on a mission.
Santa Clarita’s newest Gold Star father has a message for military leaders:
Stop hiring independent contractors for U.S. force protection. Don’t entrust soldiers’ lives to private security firms that hire native residents in an active war zone. Don’t hand an AK-47 to someone who hasn’t been properly vetted.
As it turns out, the Afghan infiltrator had been hired just 10 days earlier and was a security team leader, Dante Acosta said.
“This was totally avoidable,” Dante said in an “SCV Newsmaker of the Week” interview Tuesday on SCVTV.
While Dante’s message might sound simple and even sensible, his quest for action hasn’t been nearly so simple. Not during troop reductions. Not when the military is shaving $465 billion from its budget over the next 10 years. Not when a congressional supercommittee can’t come to terms and stave off further cuts that could render the U.S. incapable of operating simultaneously in two theaters.
Much has changed in the seven decades since Pearl Harbor. Even in Korea and Vietnam, Navy Seabees cleared most of the airstrips and the Army Corps of Engineers built the bridges and paved the highways. Today, more and more of the functions once performed exclusively by members of the U.S. armed forces are farmed out to private contractors.
Usually that’s because it is more cost-effective to hire contractors. In Afghanistan the situation is more complex. It’s a NATO command, and cost containment isn’t supposed to be the overriding factor in Afghanistan. Instead, U.S. and international forces are supposed to be training Afghans to take over more of the peacekeeping responsibilities.
For Rudy Acosta, the reason for farming out force protection didn’t matter.
Dante Acosta thinks it is worth neither the risk nor the cost.
“We’re penny wise and pound foolish,” he said, letting his experience as a senior financial advisor with UnionBanc Investment Services kick in. Pennies saved on force protection are outnumbered by the dollars lost with the death not only of two trained soldiers – Rudy, 19, and Cpl. Donald R. Mickler Jr., 29, of Ohio – but of two people who would have gone on to become productive, tax-paying members of society.
Dante has taken his message to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee – his own Santa Clarita congressman, Buck McKeon.
McKeon invited Dante to testify in Washington about native security forces in Afghanistan. Dante came away feeling unfulfilled. He said the discussion centered on the Afghan National Army and Afghan border police – “which are not the same thing. Those are actually Afghan governmental agencies.”
Rudy’s case involves “civilians hired by an Afghan subsidiary of a Canadian firm (that) hires local Afghans to guard our soldiers,” Dante said. “I haven’t been successful in having a hearing specifically about this issue.”
At the Sept. 22 hearing, McKeon formally submitted 10 questions on behalf of Dante and his wife, Carolyn Acosta, to Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy.
Answers were supposed to come in 60 days. The deadline passed two weeks ago. McKeon – and the Acosta family – still await a formal Defense Department reply to the questions, which appear below.
Also awaited are the results of an investigation McKeon requested March 28, 2011, nine days after Rudy’s death.
McKeon wrote to then-NATO ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus seeking his “personal assurances that your command will spare no effort to determine the root causes for this and other similar attacks by Afghans employed by the U.S. directly or hired by U.S. funded contractors.”
Also March 28, McKeon wrote to Army Secretary John McHugh, asking him to assess whether U.S. troops were adequately prepared to “detect and possibly prevent attacks by host nation personnel hired by the U.S. Army in support of counterinsurgency operations.”
And in a same-day letter to then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, McKeon requested “a review to ensure that the Department of Defense and all the combatant commands have in place processes and procedures to assess the reliability of host nation personnel … who are contracted, utilized or employed by U.S. military forces.”
“As Dante and Rudy Acosta’s representative,” McKeon told SCVTV in a statement, “it is my duty to make sure that the issues and concerns of my constituents are echoed in Washington.
“As Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, there is no matter I take more seriously than the safety of our service men and women. There is no greater loss than the loss of a soldier, and as a father I can only imagine the grief that their loved ones bear.
“I share Mr. Acosta’s concerns to ensure the safety of our nation’s sons and daughters who bravely and selflessly answer their country’s call to duty. I look forward to Mr. Acosta’s continued partnership in our pursuit to best serve the troops who serve our great country.”
Dante Acosta knows it takes time and tenacity to effect change, and he’s determined to commit both to his cause.
“I don’t know that I can rest knowing that we have soldiers over there still in theater (who are) not allowed to protect themselves,” he said. “They’re asked to stand by while there are 90 or so Afghans with AK-47s on our posts, on our bases, and they’re tasked with guarding our troops – to sometimes tragic results.”
“When we had bad body armor going over there, that got changed because the public demanded it,” Dante said. “When the public demands no more foreign nationals guarding our troops as they sleep and eat on their bases, then it will change.”
Dante Acota’s “SCV Newsmaker of the Week” appearance will be televised Thursday, Dec. 8, at 9 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 11, at 8:30 a.m. on SCVTV (Time Warner Cable Channel 20, AT&T U-verse Channel 99, SCVTV.com live stream, with an archived copy on demand at SCVNewsmaker.com).
Questions submitted Sept. 22, 2011, by U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon on behalf of Dante and Carolyn Acosta to Michele Flournoy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy:
1. Why do we trust non Americans to guard our troops in a war zone?
2. What are the other options to having contractors like Tundra Security assigned to protecting our troops in wartime and in foreign lands?
3. Who is directly responsible for approving these contracts and implementing this policy?
4. What ties to any US government or foreign governments does Tundra have?
5. What criteria must be met by a contractor to be awarded a contract such as this?
6. Now or in the past have former employees ever worked for any agency of the US Government?
7. Why are these guards allowed on base with loaded weapons?
8. Where is the threat to them or the convoys they escort on the base?
9. What kind of supervision are these guards under?
10. How are the guards trained and who trains them?