The Bodyguard

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Gazing into his son Dylan's stroller, Plevnik beams, revealing a sparkling row of pearly white teeth and dimples on either side of his full, rosy lips. Now 34 years old, he glows with pride as he stares almost trancelike at his son's chubby visage. Tearing his puppy-dog brown eyes away for a brief second, he gushes, "He is so beautiful."

Pulling back Dylan's yellow blanket, Plevnik cups the stocky 4-month-old baby's body in his large hands and lifts him to his chest. Dylan gurgles. Dad smiles. They look like any other father and son enjoying breakfast at a sidewalk café during one of Miami's seasonably warm winter mornings.

"He is so good with Dylan," says his wife of almost a year, former professional ice skater Jill Ann Skrzycki, "and he's one of the most humble men I've ever met."

Plevnik exudes an almost childlike naiveté that belies his violent past. The middle child — and only son — of a Yugoslav army major and a school principal, he was born in May 1972 in Otocec, a town southeast of Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana. His father, Vilei, who died recently, was stern and uncompromising with regard to raising his three children. "He was really, really strict," Plevnik says, rolling his eyes. "We were raised the army way, even my sisters."

Vilei Plevnik enrolled his son in kickboxing lessons at age 4. "My mom wanted me to take dance classes, but my dad pushed me into martial arts," he recalls. "I didn't really like it at first because we had a very tough coach." But the young boy warmed to the sport, and he soon began to rise through the ranks. By age 15, he was a fifth-degree black belt.

"Martial arts is all about coordination, and my coach sent me to study jazz ballet to help me with my flexibility," he laughs. "I said no problem, make my mom happy." Though he claims he didn't get bad grades in school, he does admit that his focus was fighting. "I was pretty much raised in the army. I went with my dad to the bases all the time, to the shooting range. I didn't know anything else other than that."

At age 15, he moved out of his parents' home to study at an army-run school located near Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. When he was 19, he graduated and transferred to a military academy: "One of those places where they put 12 guys in a room and you have to wake up at 6 a.m."

In June 1991, war broke out between the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Slovenia. "We weren't allowed to watch TV, so we really didn't understand that much, but we knew Slovenia didn't want to be part of Yugoslavia anymore," he says. "But remember, I was being trained by the Yugoslav army, and they wanted me to fight for them against my own country."

Less than 24 hours after receiving the news, under cover of darkness, he and three Slovenian friends fled to the train station and made the six-hour journey home. The punishment for desertion would have been jail — or worse. "Yugoslavia was a Communist country," Plevnik says. "They could do whatever they wanted, but I was not going to fight my own people."

The conflict was over in ten days, with just a handful of deaths. (For Croatia and Bosnia, which followed Slovenia's lead months later, the bloodshed would be catastrophic and last for years.) Plevnik, meanwhile, had reported to the Slovenian army and continued with his training. He fought 11 matches throughout the year, which earned him a shot at the Amateur European Kickboxing Championship being held in Brussels. He won and within 12 months was competing with guys from more than 40 nations for the 1993 WAKO World Championships at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He finished sixth.

Upon returning to Europe, Plevnik secured a position with the military police and began working at the Slovene version of the Pentagon. He was assigned as one of three people to protect the minister of defense. (Though he won't reveal the name, Janez Jansa held the title from Slovenia's independence until March 1994.) "That's when I started bodyguarding," he says. "It's a different world. People listen to your phones; they follow you around because you are working for powerful people. You have to be careful what you do, what you say.

"There are different 'rings of protection,'" he adds. "I was ring number one, me plus two others, which means we were closest to the VIP. Ring number two, who is further out, was the local police. Ring number three was the snipers, the Special Forces guys so if we saw something we didn't like, we would tell them 'Three o'clock' and the third ring would take care of whatever it was."

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Joanne Green