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The mysterious lure of the French Foreign Legion keeps drawing Americans

Video from November 2014 shows Legionnaires training on the island of Mayotte, a French territory off the coast of eastern Africa. (Video: Foreign Legion via YouTube)

The story is bizarre enough to serve as the plot of an action movie: 2nd Lt. Lawrence J. Franks Jr. quit his job in the U.S. Army, fled the country and secretly enlisted in the elite French Foreign Legion under an assumed name, authorities said. He deployed numerous times, including during a conflict in Mali, and then turned himself in to U.S. officials this year, seemingly at peace with what he had done.

“I needed to be wet and cold and hungry,” Franks said, according to the New York Times. “I needed the grueling life I could only find in a place like the Legion.”

Franks was court-martialed and convicted, and was sentenced Monday to four years imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for conduct unbecoming an officer and desertion with intention to shirk duty. By fleeing his unit March 30, 2009, at Fort Drum, N.Y., Franks avoided deployment and prompted a manhunt because of concerns that he might have been lost or injured in the cold woods of upstate New York, Army officials said.

Franks’ case underscores something else, however: The mysterious, fabled reputation of the Legion. The service currently includes more than 7,000 members, and was established in 1831 as part of the French army, but with a key difference: Its enlisted force is heavily comprised of men from other countries — including the United States.

The Legion has a reputation — perhaps embellished at times — for attracting troubled men looking for adventure and the opportunity to start over in life. Franks’ case would appear to reinforce that. A 2008 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he said he was struggling with suicidal ideations when he fled his post and flew to Europe, he said in court, according to the Times.

The lieutenant’s father, Lawrence Franks Sr., said in a letter to the editor published in April 2009 in an Oregon newspaper that New York State Police determined the soldier had flown to Zurich, Switzerland, and passed through Swiss customs. Then he disappeared — right up until this year, after five years in the Legion.

“Lawrence gave us no clue he was contemplating a life-changing decision when we spoke per phone on March 29,” the father recalled in the letter to the editor. “His commander informs me he was an exemplary young officer with a bright future. I am a sad, confused dad. My wife would like to say, ‘We are surely not alone wondering why our beloved Lawrence left all behind, including us, whom he deeply loves.'”

Franks is far from the only U.S. service member to consider joining the Legion. The force is romanticized by some rank-and-file troops, who appreciate its rough and tumble conditions and reputation for fighting in some of the world’s fiercest wars. The Legion’s English-language website notes that 35,000 Legionnaires have been killed in combat: “Foreigners who have become sons of France not by blood received but by blood shed,” the Legion adds. Many of them did so anonymously.

Social media and military web forums are filled with questions about the service. On Reddit, for example, a 2010 thread in which an American claimed to have served in the Legion and left as an enlisted corporal drew hundreds of comments and questions from readers.

“The training was very tough,” said the purported Legionnaire. He added that basic training in the southern French post of Castelnaudary “is designed to break you, mentally, as an individual and reform you as a team.”

“It does exactly that and psychologically is probably the toughest thing I have ever experienced,” the Reddit poster wrote. “Physically, it is extremely demanding. However, if you’re in good shape and willing to push yourself (and be pushed) past what you think is your breaking point, you’ll do fine.”

The Legion also has been romanticized in the media. Vanity Fair, for example, published a 2012 article about it with the headline, “The Expendables.” It described a Legion mission in French Guiana, off the coast of Brazil, where the troops were sent to defend a French space agency site and stop gold miners hacking illegally through the jungle.

“The assignment is obviously hopeless, even absurd,” the story said, “and therefore a good fit for the Legion.”

Vice Media also has covered the Legion at least twice in the last year, with one essay by a man from Alabama who didn’t make the cut and an article about a former Canadian soldier who joined the Legion, and then later abandoned it.

“One night, while at a dive bar I frequented, I overheard these two salty old war vets belligerently claiming if they had it to do again, they would’ve joined the Legion,'” the Alabama man, Simon Bennett, wrote in explaining his reasons for joining. “And like the many hopeful applicants who see the Legion as a clean slate, I decided to try my luck. In hindsight, I don’t know what put me over the edge. All I knew was France seemed about as far away from Alabama as I was likely to get.”

The Legion also got lead billing in the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, “The Legionnaire.” He played a boxer who refused to take a dive during a match for a French mobster, and joins the Legion to get away:

In reality, the Legion continues to deploy and work with the U.S. military. In a recent example, the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, of Camp Pendleton, Calif., recently trained alongside Legionnaires in Djibouti. Six members of the Legion also traveled to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in October to take part in the military exercise Bold Alligator, U.S. military officials said. They observed Marine Corps planning so the two forces can integrate better in the future.

The Legion’s operations in Mali in 2013 also have been studied by the U.S. Army. An analysis performed for the service by the Rand Corp. this year found that that Legion units take more risks than American commanders are comfortable with, but are nevertheless a model for the kind of small forces Army Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno envisions deploying in the future.