KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — There is trouble outside Camp Phoenix. The American base on the dusty outskirts of Kabul has called for English translators. The problem is, the Americans have now hired their translator, and a crowd of Afghan job hunters at the camp gate is getting unruly.
The US soldiers are nervous. One yells obscenities and waves his gun. The crowd cowers but doesn't budge. Then, another soldier steps forward, armed only with a thick wooden staff, wrapped in peeling red tape.
The name tag on his broad chest says "Rambo," and though he wears US Army fatigues, he speaks in perfect Dari, ordering the crowd to leave. It reluctantly disperses.
This is a normal day for Rambo, an Afghan who has stood guard here for more than four years, pledging his life to the American soldiers that rid his land of the Taliban. But on Jan. 16, Rambo's gatekeeping made him a bona fide hero.
On that day, Rambo wrenched open the driver's side door of a moving car and wrestled a suicide bomber into submission before he could detonate his explosives. President Bush lauded him in a nationally televised speech several weeks ago, and before that, slightly exaggerated accounts of his feat circled through cyberspace, pleading for America to offer him citizenship or at least a medal.
On this gray day, amid the intermittent raindrops of a coming storm, Rambo seems somewhat weary of the story, asking a lieutenant whether he really needs to tell it again. So far as he is concerned, his only job is to protect those American soldiers at the gate. It is why he has taken only four days off in more than four years, even working Fridays, though that is the Muslim day of rest.
But the lieutenant kindly requests Rambo's patience. To Rambo, that is an order. "If you want me to do it, I will do it," he tells her with martial deference.
In fairness, his story is not just about the day he stopped a suicide bomber, when the steel of his resolve to protect American troops became so apparent to all who did not know him. To those who do, who gave him the "Rambo" nickname, the name tag, and the stick, his devotion was already evident.
At every corner of Camp Phoenix, Rambo stops to salute American officers. Soldiers heading out on patrol call out his name as if he were a fraternity brother. He is unquestionably one of them, because he is so willing to make the same sacrifice that they, too, have been called upon to make.
Yet he is also unquestionably Afghan, and never more so than when he smothered his countryman and would-be martyr at the front gate. To Rambo, whose name has been withheld for his protection, what happened that day was a matter of pride – a personal pride that burns deeper than love of country, or family, or faith.
"I made a promise to every American soldier," he says in grave tones. "Even if there is only one American soldier, I will be here to protect him."
Amid Camp Phoenix's soil-filled blast walls and bristling guard towers, designed to keep soldiers separate from the unsettled Afghanistan beyond, Rambo is a living lesson in the character of his country, where friends pledge their lives to defend you and enemies never rest until you have been destroyed.
On a clear, chilly Tuesday in mid- January, those two perceptions of the American presence here collided.
Having spoken for five loving minutes about his well-worn red stick and its many uses in crowd control, the black-bearded Rambo is at last primed to talk about his legendary feat, his dark eyes bright with enthusiasm. He sits on a cold, wooden picnic bench in the Camp Phoenix compound, immune to the freezing rain, his rough and blackened hands working frantically to depict the scene.
When the driver of an off-white sedan did not brake as he approached the gate, Rambo sensed danger. He ran to the door, flung it open, and saw two buttons by the gearshift, each with a wire running to a gas tank that filled the entire back seat.
Before the terrorist could reach the buttons, Rambo seized his hands, and a Security Forces soldier arrived to help. In an instant, it was over.
Later in the day, the car exploded when a demolition team failed to disarm it, but no one was injured.
Before and since the event, Rambo has gotten recognition for his role at Camp Phoenix. In his dark and low-ceilinged room – a nestlike clutter of boxes and badges and potato-chip bags – Rambo displays a letter from the former commander of NATO. There is a framed commendation that bears both the US and Afghan flags, as well as a jumble of military coins given for his service.
In another corner, he uncovers a pile of letters from American soldiers, their wives, and their mothers – one with a lipstick-stained kiss of gratitude. These are his treasures. The thanks he has always received for his service makes his monastic existence worthwhile. Even before Jan. 16, he stayed here from before dawn until after dusk. Now, he lives on the base full time. In fact, he has not been home for three months.
He bears the security measures joyfully. And he doesn't heed the Afghans who roll down their windows and shout obscenities at him as they pass. "I don't care what they say," he says. "I will protect my friends."
Yes, he says, the Americans are here to help hold his country together as it attempts to heal after three decades of misrule and civil war. But more than that, he loves Americans because they have treated him with respect.
"They are good and they have strong hearts," he says.
They have given him this uniform, which is frayed at the cuffs from constant use. They have created a "Rambo fund" to help him get a TV, and have helped two of his sons get jobs. On his shoulder he proudly wears the patches of every unit that has come through Camp Phoenix – each vying for the esteemed piece of real estate that is Rambo's uniform.
"When you think of Camp Phoenix, you think of Rambo," says 1st Lt. John Stephens of 1-180th Infantry Battalion, who is in the midst of his second tour here. "He's the rock of Camp Phoenix."
Rambo's journey to the American side of the war is a simple one. During the days of the Taliban, his wife and one of his children were killed when a rocket crashed into their home. It was not intentional, he says, but it was indicative of the lives ruined by Taliban rule. Moreover, as a member of the Army during a former government, he felt unsafe and eventually fled to Pakistan for refuge.
The fall of the Taliban in 2001 brought him back to Kabul, where he resumed an old job as a truck driver and security guard at a transportation company. When Camp Phoenix commandeered the building used by the transportation company in 2003, Rambo stayed on as a security guard for the new installation. He has been here ever since, and he has been "Rambo" for almost as long.
His handle was the suggestion of a woman who was here during the early days of Camp Phoenix. "I liked Rambo even from before," he says, betraying no knowledge of anyone named Sylvester Stallone, as if Rambo and the actor are synonymous. "Sometimes he is in a movie where he is wild, and sometimes he has a necktie and is very respectable."
Which Rambo is he? "It depends," he says with a smile. "If a polite man comes, I will be a Rambo who is polite and gentle. But if it is Al Qaeda, I will be the wild Rambo."
Soldiers here will vouch for that, telling of instances where Rambo pulled people out of car windows. Back during Communist times, when he was a tank commander, Rambo says that he cut all the medals off the uniform of a superior officer when the officer (falsely, he insists) accused him of not fixing a tank correctly.
Today, he returns to the gate, huddling beside a fire in an old oil drum along with his American colleagues. They are his responsibility, he says, and he is determined not to forsake that trust.
"I don't want to be blamed," he says. "I promised these people a lot. Dying is better than to be blamed."