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The Bodyguard

With a 9mm Baretta strapped to his chest, Iztok Plevnik opened the passenger door of the bulletproof, black sedan and climbed in. Daylight was drawing to a close in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, and gray clouds cast a dreary haze over the battle-scarred landscape.

Confident his immediate surroundings posed no threat, the slender, 26-year-old Special Forces agent pulled the door shut noiselessly behind him. Without averting his gaze from the foggy horizon, he nodded silently to the driver. Soon, the red taillights of the vehicle in front began inching forward, and Plevnik's car pulled in behind. Trailing just a few feet back was a third automobile.

Plevnik barely spoke as the convoy journeyed along the capital's busy streets and headed into the mountains. He was concentrating on his work, ensuring the safe passage of the man who occupied the seat directly behind him. (He won't name the individual but says it was a high-profile political dignitary.) It was late fall 1998, less than three years after the end of the bloodiest conflict on European soil since World War II. Much of Bosnia had been reduced to poverty, massive economic disruption, and lawless instability. It was among the world's most dangerous places.

Yet Plevnik was calm. A fifth-degree black belt, he was a highly skilled knife and close-quarter combat fighter who had protected political powerhouses on behalf of the Slovenian government and private clients. None of his charges had ever suffered a mishap, and he had never been seriously injured on the job.

Until that brisk spring morning almost nine years ago.

The trio of cars sped along the narrow mountain pass, flanked on the right by a steep wall of rock and on the left by a perpendicular drop. "We didn't want to go that way because we knew something might happen, but we didn't have a choice," Plevnik says. As the convoy rounded a sharp bend, he spied a bunch of logs strewn across the road just ahead. "We had Special Forces agents in front of us who stepped out of the car," he recalls in heavily accented English, "and I got out too, locked the car, and tried to find out what was going on."

Suddenly, a thunderous roar filled the air, and bullets rained down around him.

"Honestly, nothing goes through your mind at that point. I mean you are trained for things like this," says the six-foot-one bodyguard, who now lives in Miami Shores. "I just started running back to the car because I had to get to my principal." He reached the vehicle, drew his gun, and launched his body across the hood while returning fire. He remembers feeling a throbbing sensation in his leg.

He had been shot — not once, not twice, but four times.

"It was pretty bad," he notes, pulling up his beige pants leg to reveal two one-inch-wide circular scars. The first bullet hit his left inner calf, and the force propelled his torso backward. The second lodged in his right calf; the third ripped through his buttocks. As the impact sent him spinning, the fourth bullet smashed into his right side and shattered two ribs.

His battered body thudded onto the bullet-riddled hood and rolled to the ground. "At the time, I had no idea I was hit," he says, "and my adrenaline was pumping so much that I managed to climb back into the car. But the road was too narrow for us to turn around. The only way out was the way we came."

The driver reversed as far and as fast as he could back down the road.

Plevnik was badly wounded and knew that failure to slow his blood loss could be fatal. So he employed a little-known trade secret. "Every bodyguard has a special jacket, and inside it they carry four tampons," he chuckles. "I'm serious, because if you get shot, you use them to plug up the wound."

Others involved in the incident, he says, were less fortunate. "There were people killed, but nobody on our side. I know exactly who it was, but I can't say. Put it this way: It wasn't good people."

Indeed, this description shows a glimmer of this young man's fascinating ride of a life. He trained as a jazz ballet dancer, was crowned the amateur European kickboxing champion, fled from the onset of war, cheated death, traveled the globe working as a Special Forces bodyguard, modeled for one of the nation's most highly regarded agencies, played professional arena football, published a diet book, and found time to raise a family.

"I'm not sure how much I can talk about," the baby-faced Plevnik states, his face a mask of sobriety. "I have done some very bad things. I've killed people."

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Joanne Green

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