Gazing into the leafy backyard of his Omaha home, Kris Paronto can almost forget the ghosts of Benghazi.
For many Americans, the facts of the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya’s second-largest city on Sept. 11, 2012, remain murky, overshadowed by the Beltway debate over who is to blame for the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans that night.
Paronto, 43, wants to change that. He was there — one of six private contractors hired by the CIA to provide security at its Benghazi annex, less than a mile from the diplomatic compound where the attack occurred.
Paronto and the four other surviving members of the Annex Security Team have told their story in a new book, “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” co-written by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff.
The book mostly skips the politics to tell a dramatic action tale in the mold of “Black Hawk Down.”
But the authors do level harsh criticism at “Bob,” a pseudonym for the CIA station chief in Benghazi. They say “Bob” ordered the team to stand down while he tried to arrange for a Libyan militia to aid the seven men trapped in the compound.
Paronto and his teammates — all military veterans, most with special forces experience — were “jocked up” in their weapons and protective gear within minutes of the first call for help from the besieged diplomatic compound. They loaded themselves into two armored vehicles, ready to go. Then they were told to wait.
After 20 minutes, hearing the increasingly desperate pleas over the radio, the team defied orders and took off.
“We’re just thinking ‘We’ve got to get to our buddies,’ ” Paronto said. “You don’t just sit there and watch.”
He would love to have those 20 minutes back. He believes Stevens and U.S. State Department information technology specialist Sean Smith would have lived.
“They died of smoke inhalation. That takes time,” Paronto said. “If we would have gotten there sooner and scared (the invaders) off earlier, we could have gotten them out of those buildings.”
He’s way more interested in talking about the boots-on-the-ground actions of the men who tried to save lives that night than in the endless debate over the roles of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.
“I want to honor these guys I fought with — tell the truth, tell what happened,” he said. “I’m not going to speculate about Hillary and Obama.”
For Paronto, Benghazi means fire and smoke and sweat and blood. He lived through a night of frustration, terror and sorrow.
He won’t forget the moment when he saw a pair of mortar rounds hit the roof of a building in the compound. Four of his friends manned positions up there. Two of them — Tyrone “Rone” Woods and Glen “Bub” Doherty — were killed.
“I saw the smoke coming up, and I knew. ‘(Expletive), they’re gone,’ ” Paronto recalled in a weekend interview at his home.
Paronto had taken a long and in some ways unlikely path to Benghazi. The son of a college football coach and an elementary school teacher, he had been an indifferent student but a stellar athlete while growing up at a series of his father’s coaching stops in Colorado, Oregon and Utah.
“I was a typical jock kid growing up. I played outside, rode motorcycles,” he said.
In football, Paronto was a junior college All-American wide receiver, good enough to be recruited by Brigham Young and South Carolina. But he chose Division II Mesa State College in Colorado, where his father was athletic director.
Paronto said he didn’t get along with the coach and didn’t play much. As he lost interest in sports, his academics improved. He earned a degree in criminal justice and planned to go into law enforcement. An FBI recruiter steered him to the military.
Paronto decided to enlist in the Army after a recruiter showed him a video of the elite Army Rangers.
He excelled in the Army but left after two years under pressure from his wife, who disliked military life. They later divorced.
“I was so down. I felt like a failure,” Paronto said. “I had not only lost my wife, but I was out of the Army, too.”
To console him, a friend invited him to come along on a spring break trip to Texas. There he met Tanya Cate, an All-American volleyball player (and now an assistant coach) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He followed her to Omaha and enrolled in graduate school at UNO. He earned a degree and gained a wife and a permanent home in Nebraska.
Paronto re-enlisted in 1999 and served four more years. But he was forced out after his superiors learned that he suffered from Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. He was crushed.
In 2004, his luck changed. Paronto was recruited by Blackwater, a private security company that protects diplomats in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.
“It was a lifesaver for me. I was with guys again like myself,” he said.
Paronto spent two years with Blackwater and later contracted on his own. Over the next several years, his security work took him all over the world, for seven to nine months a year. But he earned as much as $1,000 a day for the risky work.
“It didn’t create a good family life,” he said. “But my kids’ college fund is pretty far along for their ages.”
In the summer of 2012, Paronto took a short-term assignment in Benghazi. The city had been a pro-American stronghold during the rebellion the previous year against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
But the city had changed. It was controlled by a patchwork of militias. Some, inspired by al-Qaida, were fiercely anti-American.
Besides Paronto — known by his radio call sign “Tanto” — the Annex Security Team included Mark “Oz” Geist, John “Tig” Tiegen, Woods and two men called in the book by the pseudonyms Dave “D.B.” Benton and Jack Silva, to preserve their privacy.
Everyone on the team agreed that the defenses of the diplomatic compound and the CIA annex were weak, with just the six contractors and a handful of agents from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service. Requests to beef up the defenses had been rebuffed in Washington, D.C. Security at the compound was to be left in the hands of a friendly militia called “17 February.”
Paronto and his teammates didn’t trust them.
Ambassador Stevens had arrived Sept. 10 for a ribbon-cutting and to meet with local officials. Despite the ominous anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, Paronto said, the team was no more worried than usual.
“It wasn’t like September 11th was any different,” he said. “We thought we were going to get attacked every day.”
The first call for help came at 9:32 p.m. on Sept. 11. Libyan irregulars had overrun the diplomatic compound, and the militia guards appeared to have abandoned their posts. Stevens, Smith and Diplomatic Security Service agent Scott Wickland barricaded themselves in a safe room inside the ambassador’s residence. Four other Diplomatic Security Service agents were holed up in two other buildings.
As the security team members left the annex for the compound, they could hear gunfire and see smoke. They drove quickly but not recklessly, to avoid suspicion.
They approached the compound warily, not sure whether the insurgents controlled the site, and made the decision to sneak in on foot, through yards and over walls. Woods and Silva reached the ambassador’s residence — by now nearly an hour after the first call for help — and found it burning intensely.
Unable to penetrate the safe room, the invaders had saturated the furniture and carpets with diesel fuel, then set it on fire. Inky smoke filled the home. Wickland had escaped, thinking Stevens and Smith were right behind him. He nearly died as he returned repeatedly to try to find them, without success.
In pairs, the security team members checked the other buildings and rounded up the Diplomatic Security Service agents. The invaders seemed to have left the compound — but the Americans couldn’t be sure. All of the security team, now including the agents, made repeated forays into the burning residence. Paronto entered twice.
“It was like going into a pizza oven,” Paronto said. “It was hot, and you couldn’t breathe in there at all.”
Finally, two of the security agents found Smith inside and brought him out of the burning building. He was dead.
“I looked at his face,” Paronto said. “I said a prayer over him. ‘God bless his soul, please accept him.’ Then I got back to work.”
Still, no one could find the ambassador. He must be dead, they concluded; no one could have survived the heavy smoke. After more than two fruitless hours, they climbed into two vehicles. The invaders had begun a counterattack. Paronto and the security team, aided by some friendly militia members, fought their way out of the diplomatic compound and headed through quiet streets back to the CIA annex.
But they knew it wouldn’t be safe there for long. Paronto’s team fully expected an attack at the annex, too, before morning arrived. At least they could prepare for this one.
The security team and some of the Diplomatic Security Service agents deployed on the roofs, with night-vision goggles and plenty of ammo. Each man watched over a different area.
Paronto and Benton looked out over a scrubby acre to the east they called “Zombieland” because they thought it resembled the set of a horror movie.
Twice during the night they watched as groups of men crept toward the compound’s wall. They waited until the figures drew close. Then they opened up with short, disciplined bursts of fire.
Before dawn, a team of five security contractors that had flown in from the Embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, arrived. These were the only reinforcements the Benghazi team would receive all night.
One of the Tripoli contractors, Bub Doherty, climbed to the roof of one of the buildings to see Rone Woods, his old friend and fellow former Navy SEAL.
Soon after, mortars landed next to them. Woods and Doherty died together. Oz Geist and one of the security agents were badly hurt.
Paronto and the others held their positions, expecting a horde of invaders to storm the annex and more mortars to follow. Neither came.
“We were lucky,” Paronto said. “If they’d have kept mortaring us, we would have all been dead.”
Soon a convoy of Libyan police arrived to take the roughly 25 survivors to the airport, along with the bodies of Smith, Woods and Doherty.
The body of Ambassador Stevens would meet them at the airport. He had been recovered from the burned-out residence by friendly Libyans and taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
It was a dispiriting journey home for Paronto and his teammates. Their fallen comrades were next to them, covered by sheets. The ambassador’s body was in a flag-draped coffin.
And they all traveled on a Libyan transport, not an American plane.
“I was thinking ‘I hope they don’t shoot this plane out of the sky,’ ” Paronto said of the Libyan attackers. “I was just tired, physically drained.”
He realized he’d grown fed up with working for the government. He turned full time to his side business, as an insurance adjuster in Omaha, and to his family.
After 18 years of Army and contract security work, Paronto didn’t need the adrenaline rush of the combat work zone anymore.
“I did my ‘cool guy’ stuff. I checked that box,” Paronto said. “My new goal is making sure I’m around for my kids.”
He has seen Department of Veterans Affairs counselors to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder. But mostly he has his own ways of dealing with the nightmares. He runs, he works out, he tells jokes. He loves to talk, especially to the friends who survived Benghazi.
“D.B., Oz and Tig and Jack and myself, we’re bros,” Paronto said. “We can talk about that night.”
Writing the book has kept them in touch, and now they’ll be working together to publicize it. Fox News outbid other networks for the advance media rights. Last week news anchor Brett Baier and a film crew spent two days with him at home, and they were guests Friday on Baier’s show. This week, he and two of his teammates will appear on Bill O’Reilly’s television program and with Sean Hannity on his radio show.
“It’s a whole new world,” Paronto said.
He revels in family life with Tanya and his kids, a 9-year-old son he calls “Bubba” and 6-year-old girl he calls “Princess.”
When he’s having a bad night, it’s the kids who help him get through.
“I walk into their rooms and I kiss ’em,” Paronto said. “They’re still innocent. They don’t know the bad things in this world.”
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