TORA, Afghanistan — As soon as the French Foreign Legion moved in this summer, some of the men climbed on the roof of the base headquarters and painted the force's Latin motto in big white letters.
"Legio Patria Nostra." The legion is our homeland.
Home has been in many far-flung places for legionnaires during their storied 178-year history — North Africa, the Far East, Mexico, and now the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan as part of NATO's U.S.-led International Security Force.
The legion's Afghan contingent consists of 750 men of more than 80 nationalities. Some have joined up for high-adrenaline life, some are dodging the law, some have come from poor countries simply to earn a decent wage.
If anything bothers them about the Afghan mission, it's NATO's rules of engagement, which stress the need not just to fight the Taliban but to befriend the local population.
"We're meant for fighting. There's too much chatting around here," said Chief Sgt. Alex, downing beers in the legionnaires' clubhouse at Tora base, an open-air shed whose large flat-screen TV was showing hard-core porn videos to the music of "Viagra," a Ukrainian techno band.
Legionnaires keep their past a secret
A 23-year veteran of 17 legion missions, mostly in the Balkans and in former French colonies in Africa, Alex said he was expecting his fifth citation for valor, for a nighttime combat mission with U.S. Special Forces.
Like his comrades, the British-born former pub manager went only by his first name, an alias. The legion gives all recruits a new name and strictly guards their anonymity.
"Legionnaires begin a new life when they join," explained Capt. Michel. "Each and every one of them is allowed to keep his past a secret."
It's part of the legion's mystique, along with a reputation for ferocity, in battle as well as in the training needed to mold men of many countries and languages into a single force.
Since settling into their base at Tora, in the Surobi district east of Kabul, the legionnaires, who make up almost a third of French troops in the NATO force, have not had many opportunities to fight.
They have pushed two-thirds of the way up the Uzbeen valley nearby, a former Taliban stronghold where their outposts still come under sporadic attack. But most of their mission has been to patrol relatively calm villages, meeting with the "Maleks," or community leaders, while U.S. and British forces bear the brunt of the fighting in the more volatile Afghan south.
A path to citizenship
Historically, the legionnaires have viewed themselves as one big family of 7,500 men. Even the officers spend Christmas not at home but on base with their men, and retirees and invalids can live on the legion's farm in southern France, where they grow and bottle rose wine.
At dinner recently, officers were served Cote du Rhone red wine, while alcohol had been banned at U.S. and British bases in the country.
To enlist in the all-male legion, a man simply has to sign up at a recruiting station on French soil. Officers say police often let illegal migrants go through if they are heading for the legion. One recruit recently bicycled from Mongolia to France, they said.
It's a tradition that dates to the founding of the legion in 1831, after France was bled by the Napoleonic wars and needed foreign men to help conquer and colonize Algeria.
Five years' service entitles a recruit to French citizenship. A handful are Afghans, but none are here. The rules bar legionnaires from fighting their native countrymen.
Murderers, rapists and child molesters are banned.
‘Nothing keeping me back home’
Officers say background checks are done when needed, and legionnaires who lie about their records may be kicked out. Their files are kept secret and they have the right not to talk to or be photographed by the media. One man in Tora is a Harvard and Princeton graduate. He declined to be interviewed, his officers said.
Another American, Private 1st Class Raoul, would not discuss why he spent three months in prison for a felony when he was 18. "I didn't kill anyone, but I didn't make anybody proud either," he said.
A plumber from Virginia Beach, Va., he wanted to join the U.S. military but was turned down because of his record. "I grew tired of being told I was a criminal, so I flew to France," Raoul said. "I had absolutely nothing keeping me back home."
Another man, Cpl. Marcus, said he was 7 when he saw legionnaires in action in his home country, the Central African Republic, in the 1980s, and was so impressed "I promised myself I'd join them one day." After both his parents were killed during the next wave of violence in 1990, Marcus fled and ended up in the legion's 2nd infantry regiment, now stationed in Tora.
Aura of adventure
Most legionnaires don't have a criminal record, officers say. Some joined because of the aura of adventure and romance cultivated over the decades by novels and movies such as Hollywood's 1936 classic "Morocco," in which Marlene Dietrich follows her legionnaire lover, played by Gary Cooper, in the North African desert.
Discipline is harsh, and a spell in a legion prison is something of a rite of passage.
Raoul said his hardest challenge was learning French. A corporal teaching him to count to 10 thumped him on the chest each time he flunked a number. Eighteen months later, his French is fluent.
The third of the force whose mother tongue is French are nicknamed Gauls, after the ancient tribe. A lot of Slavic language is also heard, because another third of the men are from Eastern Europe and Russia.
One of the legionnaires is Rushan, a former lieutenant in the Russian army. Now he's a corporal, but says he earns 1,200 euros a month ($1,780) — as much as a senior Russian commander.
Rushan was born in Kabul, where his father was a colonel in the Soviet army which occupied the country throughout the 1980s.
"Being in Afghanistan again is a bit strange," he said. He speaks Dari, an Afghan language, and says he landed at an airport his father built.
Raoul, the legionnaire from Virginia, says he didn't expect to end up in Afghanistan, and his family worries about him. "But my mom is proud of me now."
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