ST. GEORGE — Former Dixie State University student and former Army Ranger Kris “Tonto” Paronto, one of the central figures in the highly politicized events surrounding the firefight that took place at the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11, 2012, returned to DSU Monday to speak about his experience to a packed ballroom at the Gardner Center.
Even in the midst of the carnage at the consulate, when Paronto first saw the attack on the diplomatic compound three-quarters of a mile away, as bullets streaked red-hot through the Libyan night, he still saw beauty. When he arrived at the central compound later that night and saw the fire surrounding the building, he said, he had never seen colors so vivid.
Paronto and his former team of security contractors co-wrote the book “13 Hours” — now a feature film — with author Mitchell Zukoff to tell their story and to dispel the rumors and inaccuracies that surround the events of that night, Paronto said. There has been so much politicizing of the story from both sides of the political aisle that he and his former team decided to speak up.
Paronto took the stage to a standing ovation. A relaxed and engaging speaker, he recounted the events in Benghazi over the course of an hour. His story was at once serious and grim but also often humorous, spiritual and hopeful.
One aspect that is rarely spoken about that night, Paronto said, is the positive side of it. Despite the bloodshed and loss of life, there were also heroism, self-sacrifice and faith — faith in your brothers, faith in God and faith that you are where you are supposed to be, he said. His own faith was what helped him see the beauty and what helped him get through the worst moments of that night.
“It just needs to be remembered as an inspirational story,” he said. “It’s not a political story. Politicians turn it into a political story, and they still are. They forget the honor and courage that was displayed that night. That’s what needs to be remembered from it.”
The decision to write the book was not an easy one. All of the co-authors lost their government-contracted jobs when they committed to telling their story, but that was a sacrifice they felt was necessary. Their friends had died during the battle and yet the issue had become a political football, he said.
Paronto and his team have been called liars by people who were not there or who were far removed from the action, he said. His anger has mostly subsided but it still bothers him when politicians or journalists use Benghazi to create a false narrative.
Both he and his brothers in arms don’t want the book or the movie to be political, he said.
“We, as the guys on the ground, are going to stay middle-of-the-road … bullets don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat,” Paronto said. “They kill you nonetheless.”
Author Mitchell Zukoff is a staunch Democrat, Paronto said, while Paronto is a Republican. Despite their political differences, their goals were the same: to write a book that told the story without political overtones that depicted what the soldiers experienced during that night. Michael Bay, the movie’s director, also strove to present a nonpolitical version of the events, he said.
Let Hillary and Trump play games with the issue, Paronto said, but the truth is the truth.
One of the key points that has become politically charged revolves around whether or not Paronto and his team were ordered to stand down that night. The top CIA official, “Bob” (a pseudonym), who was in charge of the annex, did tell them to stand down, Paronto said. Whether or not that order came from a higher chain of command is speculation and Paronto said that he and his team have no interest in theorizing where the order came from. But on that night, “Bob” did tell them to stand down, he said.
“Who are people going to believe?” he said. “Are you going to believe the guys on the ground that are actually giving themselves and are willing to die for somebody else or are you going to believe the bureaucrats?”
“We can’t turn it into anything else but just what we saw,” he said.
After his talk, Jordon Sharp, DSU director of Student Involvement and Leadership, presented Paronto — a former walk-on football player for the then-Dixie State College — with a display case containing a red football jersey with the number 9 from his playing days, a football, a Dixie “D” and a black-and-white photo of the team. Paronto played for Dixie in the early ’90s and graduated with an associate degree in 1992.
If there is one takeaway from that night, Paronto said, it is this: There are still those willing to sacrifice themselves, there are still those who know the value of honor and there are still those who are not self-absorbed and are willing to put others before themselves.
That, he said, is what people need to remember when they think of Benghazi.
According to the book “13 Hours,” the events in Benghazi began on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, when Islamic militants attacked the U.S. Consulate compound in Libya. Paronto and his team of private security contractors working for the CIA at the nearby annex eventually fought their way to the compound and rescued several government employees working there. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and Information Officer Sean Smith both died as a result of the attack on the compound. Paronto and his team fought their way back to the CIA annex where a 13-hour firefight ensued. Security contractors and former Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, perished during the annex battle. On the morning of Sept. 12, the remaining soldiers and government employees were able to evacuate to safety.
For more information, visit Paronto’s website.
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