“God kept us there for a reason,” Kris “Tanto” Paronto said about the night the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi fell to a terrorist attack Sep. 11, 2012. “Three of us were supposed to leave 10 days earlier. If we had left on schedule I believe the casualty count would have been higher.”
Speaking in a very personable and often-times humorous manner to an audience of about 150 people at the Oasis Golf Course clubhouse Saturday night Feb. 13, Paronto recounted the hours leading up to and during the attack in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and others were killed.
After spending about 10 years as a U.S. Army Ranger, Paronto was a CIA-sponsored private security contractor stationed in Benghazi at the time of the attack. He and five others were part of a global response team. He’s also the co-author of the book “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” that was later made into a movie “13 Hours” directed by Michael Bay.
“Benghazi itself has been completely politicized and turned into a negative. But it’s a positive event. A lot of positive things happened that night. There was a lot of teamwork. We experienced faith in ourselves, faith in our brothers and faith in our God,” he said.
Explaining that his team had been on stand-by all day monitoring events in the city, they received a call at 9:32 that evening that something was happening at the consulate. “We could see the attack and see tracers going through the sky. We had our gear on and ready to go in about five minutes. I went up to the base’s team chief and told him we were ready to go. The team chief looks at me and tells me to tell the others ‘you need to wait.’ So we waited five more minutes.
He related how they were getting calls from the minimal security force at the consulate asking for their help. “We could see the firefight going.”
After about 15 minutes, one of the other team members “went up to Bob [the annex station chief] and said we were ready to go. Bob said to him, ‘You need to stand down.’”
“It was said, period. I don’t know what else to tell people. I’m not going to argue about it,” he said about the controversial order given that night.
Paronto said that after about 25 minutes of waiting his team got another call from the consulate security force saying that if they didn’t get help soon they would all die. Soon after Paronto and the rest of the team left the CIA annex and headed to the consulate.
“They knew what they were doing,” Paronto said about the terrorists that launched the attack. “There were several buildings within the consulate that were never touched. Only the buildings that had our people in them were attacked and burning. That was another indication that the bad guys knew what they were doing.”
“Contractors have gotten a bad name mainly because of the mainstream media,” he said. “They portray us as indiscriminate, blood-thirsty, blood-lust killers. I have never shot at anybody who didn’t shoot at me first. I’m just very lucky that the guy shooting at me first sucked at shooting. We do not engage until we get engaged.”
It took about an hour for the team to actually get onto the consulate grounds after the initial call for help came in. During a lull in the fighting they rounded up all the survivors and evacuated them.
The team realized they had not retrieved some classified computer equipment so Paronto and one other man went back into the technology building to grab what they could.
“Our hands are full of computers as we’re running out of the building. I’m Mexican and Jack is Portuguese. I remember Jack looking at me and said ‘Dude, doesn’t it look like we just robbed a Best Buy.’ I remember how funny it was at the time. There is comedy in combat.”
Paronto went on to describe the events through the night saying the portrayal of firefights in the book and the movie “are spot on. The movie is verbatim. We were there. We helped write the script.”
He related that they were unable to retrieve the Ambassador’s body during the attack. “We couldn’t find him in the burning building. We made a decision to leave the consulate and return to the annex. It was hard for us to leave him. I’ll deal with it forever.”
He went on to explain that the Ambassador died of smoke inhalation in the main consulate building. “We did get his body back later. I inspected his body. It was not desecrated.”
Near the end of the fighting, Paronto said the people involved in the attack were actually saved by the Libyan air force who had landed an airplane nearby enabling them to evacuate the dead and wounded and to leave themselves.
“I hated this country,” he said about the political situation he found regarding Benghazi when he returned to the U.S. “I came home for a couple months and then I went to Yemen on another assignment. After eight months and seeing the story get completely bastardized and torn up, we came back and told the truth in our book.
“After speaking engagements people would thank me for what we did. I started understanding that not everybody believed what they were hearing on the news media. People were trusting us more than the government. To me, you have really saved me. That’s why I’m proud of this story. I hope this story takes this country back to where it needs to be.
“For a time, I wanted to put a bullet in my head. But you people have saved my life,” Paronto said to a standing ovation.