KABUL, Afghanistan — A taxi stops near the front gate of Camp Phoenix on the outskirts of Kabul. Within seconds a short, stocky man wielding a pipe starts to approach the vehicle. The man with the lead stick means business.
“Move the car,” he demands in a language anyone could understand. “Move the car. Now!”
The occupant hastily pays his fare, and the taxi driver wastes no time backing away.
With the way clear, the Afghan man U.S. soldiers call “Rambo” returns to his post just inside the gate to resume his vigil.
A person would be hard pressed to find anyone in the camp who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of Rambo, so named by troops in the 10th Mountain Division.
“He’s definitely a legend on this camp,” Sgt. Michael Sweet said.
While Sweet, an Indiana National Guardsman, is a shift sergeant, it’s abundantly clear that Rambo is the primary gatekeeper.
In June 2003, when U.S. forces first rolled up to the front gate of what was then a Russian-Afghan transport company, Rambo was waiting. He hasn’t left.
Stories of Rambo permeate the base. Some are factual. Others are not.
“This is my hooch,” he says through an interpreter as he opens the door to a small, cramped room immediately off the front gate.
His real name is Jamal Udin, born in Kabul “maybe 41 years ago,” he said, to parents who moved to the capital from northern Afghanistan.
For many Afghans, details such as years and dates aren’t all that critical.
As a teen, he said, he served as a conscript in the Afghan army, which, at the time, was under the thumb of the Russians.
After military service, Udin got a truck-driving job with the transport company. His trips took him all over the region: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.
It was during this time that he married his wife, Shahgull, who was a couple of years younger than he was. By Afghan standards, Udin had a good life. He had a steady job, an apartment, six children and a wife he adored.
The turning point for Udin, he said, came several years ago when a rocket-propelled grenade apparently fired by a Taliban soldier slammed into his apartment, killing his wife.
Udin remembers the time of day — 10 or 11 a.m. — but not the year. The Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, but were beating back counterattacks for sometime afterward, so it could’ve been 1997.
“We loved each other,” Udin said of his wife, “which is why I will never remarry.”
Udin took his brood — four sons and two daughters — to Pakistan, where Shahgull has family. They remained there for about four years.
“While I was in Pakistan, I saw President Bush and his wife on TV,” Udin said. “They said: ‘We will help Afghanistan. We will rebuild Afghanistan.’ That’s why I like Americans, and why I like to work for them.”
That commitment to his country prompted him to return to Kabul. Because Udin had sold his apartment, the only logical place to go, he figured, was his old workplace. His bosses didn’t have a driver’s job open, so they assigned him to the front gate — and he’s been there ever since.
“He takes a lot of work off of our hands,” said Spc. David Young, who, like Sweet, is with Company C, 151st Infantry Battalion.
Udin has an incredible capacity to remember faces, Sweet said. He always knows who belongs on base and who doesn’t. If a stranger approaches, the man they call Rambo steps forward first to sort things out. And his lead pipe, wrapped in red tape, rarely leaves his hand, sending a subtle but convincing message not to cross him.
The guy is dependable, too. Udin typically works from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., every night. Last year, he can recall taking only two days off. Every fourth or fifth night, he’ll visit his brother’s house to see his daughter Zarmina, who is now 10.
While Udin frets about his daughter, the troops worry about him.
Udin’s room is filled with gifts from well-meaning, young Americans. A general’s driver from the previous rotation gave him a TV; a sergeant from the Indiana Guard bought him a space heater; and another current occupant of the base, a female soldier, presented him with a blanket, gloves and a black, wool hat with the name “Rambo” stitched across it.
And that’s only scratching the surface. There are several 12-pack soda boxes, instant soup, snacks, sunglasses and even a bottle of bubbles, the type that kids like to play with. Udin also has his own camouflage uniform.
“They are always taking care of me,” he said. The attention, he added, “makes me work harder and harder for them.”
For months after the Americans arrived, Udin refused to accept money. His company was already paying him, and he saw no reason to double dip. When his company quit paying him, he accepted the Americans’ offer. Today, his monthly salary is $420, plus meals.
“Have a good day, Rambo,” Spc. David A. Pranger said after he delivered lunch to Udin.
“He’s not really military, but we bring him breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Pranger added. “He’s a cool guy. He’s always here to greet us.”
Indeed, whenever a military vehicle — U.S. or coalition — enters or leaves the compound, the occupants inside get saluted.
Udin patrols the area outside the gate with a vengeance because the area tends to attract locals looking for work or handouts. The compound is also situated along a busy street.
Terrorists, he explained, “might attack the front gate with a car bomb.”
A couple of months ago, an Afghan fired on a French military vehicle.
Udin sprang into action immediately and charged the armed man. Before he could disarm him, the French shot the man themselves.
“I’m not scared,” Udin said. “I feel like I am in the Army, so if I die, no problem.”
“Rambo is one of the most honest, genuine persons I have ever met,” Sweet said. “He’s worth every penny they pay him. He never complains.”
Udin hopes to soon get an apartment so he can move his five children back home. The pay he receives from the Army has helped him immeasurably, but he states he has no intention of abandoning his post any time soon.
“Whenever the Americans leave, I will leave,” he said. “As long as they want me to stay, I will stay.”