I recently sat down with Kris “Tanto” Paronto. His story is the focus of the Hollywood blockbuster “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” Tanto shared never-before-released details about that night in Benghazi and the events that followed. We talked everything from Hollywood red carpets to the government’s response leading up to today.
The first time Tanto met the cast for the movie, he was in Malta. The actors scooped him from the airport and proceeded to recon the local nightlife. Hollywood actors and CIA operatives…to be a fly on that wall!
Emmy-nominated actor Pablo Schreiber was selected to portray Tanto in the movie. The two remain good friends to this day.
“He’s an intelligent single dad who you can grab a beer with. Pablo is a big spender, likes to have fun, and bought drinks for everyone. He doesn’t do it to show off, he just enjoys taking care of everyone.”
Watching the movie
While watching the movie, Tanto described the feeling of being transported back in time. “I remembered that night, the work…everything came surging back to me.”
The film remains difficult for him to watch. Tanto has taken part in over 200 media and speaking engagements. During these events, he relives those 13 hours over and over again. “I remember seeing the mortars hit, putting Sean’s body in the back of our SUV, and inspecting Ambassador Chris Stevens’s body after it was recovered.”
Tanto was in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago testifying for the Benghazi Select Committee as an “unnamed contractor.” After the committee adjourned, he blew off steam by going to a Fairfax, Virginia theater to watch “13 Hours.” He purchased a ticket like everyone else and stoically took a seat near the back of the theater. He wore a hat, and no one recognized him during the showing. A feeling of emptiness loomed over Tanto after watching the film. He says he truly misses the job and camaraderie shared with the men he served with.
For Tanto, traveling around on a media tour has been just as hectic as deploying. Whether it’s Fox News, Hollywood’s red carpet, or testifying on Capitol Hill, he carries himself with poise and grace. God has blessed him with the ability to be an articulate and naturally captivating public speaker. Tanto tells his story not for attention, but rather to convey this message:
“If we believe in ourselves, our brothers, and God, we can overcome any obstacle put in front of us. That night, we were given so many opportunities to quit, even by our leadership, and it would have been OK, but we didn’t. Never give up, and have faith. If you believe in God and in your brothers to stand together, you will never lose.”
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There are moments that took place in Benghazi that you don’t know about. Ones that are not pretty, and hard for many to swallow. When speaking with Tanto, he reflected back to one of these moments at the airport in Benghazi. They were evacuating on a Libyan C-130 airplane bound for Tripoli. The body of Glen Doherty was being loaded onboard, and rigor mortis had already set in.
Glen was laid on his back, but his arm pointed skyward. A bed sheet was placed over him because body bags weren’t available. Tanto explained how it was like an elephant in the room, “Everyone kept looking, but no one spoke.” Finally, Tanto said, “Fuck this,” and broke Glen’s arm to put it down. He described the sound of tendons and ligaments ripping. “These are the sorts of things that people will never understand. But I thought it was just disrespectful to leave Glen like that after everything we had been through.”
With the spotlight comes the haters. There is no status quo when it comes to the critics and their means. Even guys Tanto served with in the CIA have since turned on him. Marcus Luttrell (“Lone Survivor“) and Mark Owen (author of “No Easy Day“) helped prepare Tanto for the negative kickback. Tanto states, “You have to understand, this is a family. We have each other’s back and would lay our lives down for each other. But it’s something that just comes with the territory.” I can personally attest, prior to Benghazi, no one in the CIA ever questioned Tanto when it came to his loyalty, integrity, or tactics.
Conversation during a lull in the fighting
Tanto says that movie uses the exact dialogue exchanged between him and his teammate during a lull in fighting. “My left ear was shot out by my teammate. I was moving down in the firefight and he was laughing the whole time.” When there was a break in the action, Tanto said, “Fucker, you just shot out my ear.” The teammate laughed and shot back, “Casualty of war, bro.”
After the second firefight, before the mortars hit at the CIA annex, Tanto said, “You know they are probably going to come with technicals or something bigger next. We won’t be able to reach them with what we’ve got. Basically, we’re going to have to get off the roof and go get them.”
Tanto was essentially communicating that this would be a suicide mission. “We are going to our deaths. There is only two of us.” To a man, they both knew unequivocally what had to be done, and that this would be their last stand. Tanto looked at his teammate and said, “Are you coming with me?” Without hesitation, his teammate responded affirmatively.
During the same timeframe, the team leader radioed to see what guys needed. The men asked for water, chairs, ammo, and food. Tanto broke squelch and requested a busty blonde stripper be delivered to his rooftop position. A roar of laughter was heard throughout the courtyard. The mood was light considering what the men were experiencing. They weren’t talking about family or going home, they were steely eyed, with razor-sharp focus.
The men exchanged jokes in short bursts before their last stand. They laughed about reinforcements coming to their aid. The team had already been hooking and jabbing to protect their lives and the lives of over 20 American personnel. Before they knew it, mortars fell from the sky, and they would be forced to stop another wave of attacks. This would be their final stand.
Tanto calls home
They had been fighting for over 13 hours. After the adrenaline wore down and reality set in, Tanto was able to make his first phone call home. At 0730 the next morning, he used a local cell phone to call his wife. “It’s me. You’re going to see stuff on the news, but I’m okay. I’ll call you from Germany when I get there.” He was right, she had already seen the news and was plagued with how to tell the kids that their daddy had died. He didn’t feel like talking or describing what had occurred, so he made the call short and concise.
Impact on politics and families
With all the political mudslinging going on today, it’s a certainty that Benghazi will be in the spotlight again. There are many opinions about what happened that night. These opinions seem to sway depending on what side of the political spectrum you sit on. Regardless of your political or ideological stance, it’s important you hear from a guy on the ground. This is what he had to say about the impact on politics and the families of the fallen:
“Hillary (Clinton) screwed up; that’s not our fault. She doesn’t see the effect the event had on families and still has on families.”
Tanto frequently speaks to the mothers of Tyrone Woods and Sean Smith. They have grown so close, he’s considered an adopted son. A mother of one of the deceased still has issues when Hillary Clinton speaks. In an email, one of the mothers wrote, “Hillary came on T.V. and said we didn’t lose anyone in Libya. So my son doesn’t count as a person anymore?”
The government never communicated with one of the families about what happened to their son. Tanto sent an early release of the book “13 Hours” to the mother of this family, but she wouldn’t read it. Spearheaded by Tanto, members of the Benghazi team told her in private about what had transpired, 18 months after the attack. “We gave her a book but she couldn’t read it. We flew her to Dallas and said, ‘This is what happened,’ and she said, ‘This is the first time anyone has actually told me what happened to my son.'”
What Kris Paronto and his team did that night was simply heroic. The world would be a better place if people emulated the selflessness and conviction demonstrated by a handful of men that night. They fought not for fame or medals, but for one another.
To learn more visit www.kristantoparonto.com