Kris Paronto and 13 Hours Up Close and Personal
Kris Paronto, former Dixie alumni, Army Ranger and Blackwater Contractor spoke to a packed auditorium at Dixie State in St. George. I checked my son out of school for the noontime lecture and went early (to get a good seat), and sat waaaay in the back, next to those who were left standing. A self-described skinny guy, he took the stage, looked around and asked if Mr. Jolly was present. Mr. Jolly was one of his former football coaches; he said he had the shakes just thinking about him. To think of this former Ranger as getting nervous about anyone made us laugh and settle right down into our seats for what proved to be a warm and memorable conversation.
His humor infused his hour long narrative as he candidly related the events of the “13 Hours” he fought off Libyan attackers while rescuing 20 U.S. State Department employees in Benghazi. Those “13 Hours,” became the title of a book and major motion picture, which Kris said is extremely accurate. Hearing him speak, listening to his version of events was eye opening and at times unexpected, but central to his message was this…even in the midst of tragedy, there is beauty and moments where you feel God.
Like the moment when they finally arrived at the consulate and ran across the grass to get to the building; the green grass was the most vivid green he’d ever seen. And the flames burning from the explosions, there was no way to describe how bright and beautiful the orange fire appeared. Despite the chaos around them, his senses were heightened and colors became extremely intense–part of the memories he can’t forget.
And then there was the moment when he was out in the open, taking fire and knelt down to shoot his weapon. Bullets whizzed by his ears, snapping sounds, artillery breaking the sound barrier, but he wasn’t afraid. He knew he wasn’t going to get hit. It was as though a little golden bubble of protection surrounded him. He felt God was keeping him safe.
When you go into battle or face any kind of challenge, you have to have faith, you have to believe you will succeed, that God is looking out for you. And you have to know that whatever happens, if you live or if you die, that is the plan.
Kris should have gone home weeks before Benghazi ever happened. His contract had ended. He extended to be there with the rest of his team, a group of 40-somethings he described as the best, most highly trained, professional group of contractors he’d ever had the pleasure to work with. He trusted them. He knew what they were thinking at any given moment and vice versa. They were brothers. If not for this group of men, he said, things in Benghazi could have turned out very differently.
People ask him a lot of questions these days. They always want to know what it feels like to shoot another person. He said, “First of all, you don’t shoot unless they’re shooting at you and you know they’re not friendly. But when you take fire and shoot back, it’s just like being back in Colorado,” he said, “shooting prairie dogs. That’s all you’re doing. Then later, you think about it.” But Kris didn’t take body counts. That wasn’t his way. He didn’t want to shoot anybody. “Nobody respects human life more than someone who has to take a life,” he said. They all just wanted to stay alive.
One of the toughest moments of the entire 13 hours occurred at the end of battle, when he witnessed two of his fallen comrades rolled to the edge of a roof and dropped to the ground and after, loaded into the back of a truck. It wasn’t how he wanted things handled. Kris said he would have lowered them to the ground with a rope, but D team did it their way. Loved ones back home were told the bodies were handled with extreme care. They didn’t know. A year later when they questioned him and wanted to know the truth he told them just how things went. It was hard for them to hear and difficult for him to say, but they appreciated knowing.
Even when things might upset people…and they’re hard to say, say them. Tell the truth. It makes you a better person.
Have faith. Believe in God. Believe in yourself. Trust in yourself. Trust God. Be courageous. These were the phrases that kept repeating. There was humor too. Like when he retold how they escorted State Department workers out of the building into the cars. They were about to get into the vehicles, when workers remembered there was still classified information back in the consulate. They ran like crazy to go back and collect the thumb drives and hard drives and when they got back to the vehicle and tossed everything into the trunk, one of them said, “It looks like we just robbed Best Buy,” and Kris said, “You’re just sayin’ that ‘cause I’m Mexican.”
During war you think it’s all seriousness and every moment is some intense manly driven focus to kill, but that’s not what it’s like. There are times when you say funny things or joke because these are your buddies. You’re not some machine. You’re human.
Kris and his team members risked their lives to rescue 20 U.S. State Department Employees, fought off Libyan attacks in two waves of battle that lasted 13 hours, watched friends die, were essentially rescued by a Libyan Militia (not their own U.S. Forces), and when they got to the airport had to convince a Libyan military jet to fly them out of the country. You can imagine the difficulty Kris faced afterwards, feeling as though his country had abandoned them. Questioning the patriotism of those he thought he could trust, he struggled with his personal life, even thought about committing suicide. It wasn’t until he talked with his pastor and began talking to groups, setting the record straight, that he felt he had a duty to himself and to others; he felt he had a purpose. Talking to veterans and everyday people he saw how much they cared, and that gave him hope and something to live for.
Part of setting the record straight was letting people know they tried to get the Ambassador out. During the rescue they couldn’t find him. He died of smoke inhalation and was taken by the Libyans. Later, the body was returned and Kris inspected Ambassador Stevens and saw he was not tortured or sodomized, as some media outlets purported. He wanted to let us know.
His speech opened with an edited clip of the movie and ended with Kris thanking us for being there. We were riveted from start to finish. Standing before us was a hero, telling us he was average and just doing his job. That’s highly debatable, given that his commanding officer told him, and all the other Blackwater contractors, to “Stand down.” But they went in anyway. Knowing the risks.
Nothing that morning had indicated anything would be different or out of the ordinary from any other night. They were just going about their normal routines. They’d said to the State Department months earlier, seeing how unprotected they were, “If you ever need help call us,” and gave them a radio. That night they got the call and they made good on their offer. They drove to the consulate and because of gunfire, were forced to stop with 400 meters to go. So they proceeded on foot, scaling walls, weaving through dangerous alleyways to rescue their friends. They didn’t have to be there, they were under no obligation or contract to defend the consulate; but they went anyway.
Kris didn’t enter into the politics of the situation (I was hoping he would). I still would like answers. I still think the truth is hiding in destroyed emails and interoffice black holes. In 2012 we moved to Sweden and the Embassy began installing a new steel fence, the posts were several feet taller, sharper and further removed from the building than the previous one. There was a lot of talk about security. There were a lot of new perspectives after Benghazi.
Kris’ speech didn’t have an angle to prove anyone right or wrong. He did want to make clear, that the men who stood by his side in battle that night were willing to give of their lives, and some did, to protect others. They were great men and there was something to be said too for unlikely allies—they would not have survived without the Libyan Militia. There were moments of reflection during the long siege. At one point he wondered….will I ever see my wife and kids again? He said, “You put that aside and just keep believing, because you’ve got to believe.”
Kris became a Blackwater employee when the Army wouldn’t let him serve anymore because he had Crohn’s disease. Blackwater was his lucky break with a health history that wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do, serve his country. As it turned out, God really did have a plan for Kris and you might even say Crohn’s was part of it. Because of his unlikely path, he was where he needed to be at the moment some very desperate people needed him. For me, Kris’ story is more than the events of that fateful night, it’s about trusting that God has a plan and that whatever you’re facing, it’s for a reason. There’s no doubt about it, Kris was the right man for the job. He answered the call. He did what he was prepared to do. He never stopped believing.