Benghazi truth-telling becomes focus for these survivors

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BOSTON – They sat clustered around a coffee table Monday afternoon inside a cramped room at the Eliot Hotel in Boston, three burly veterans who only decided to tell their stories about Benghazi after coming home to a country that couldn’t get its own story straight.

They don’t care much for the politics surrounding the September 2012 attacks in the eastern Libya port city that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Imagine living through that event only to watch a frenzied media and opposing tribes of politicians spin the story for ratings and political gain.

The three ex-soldiers agreed to work with a former news reporter in order to get their story out and the resulting book, “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” became a New York Times bestseller. A film version is set to hit the silver screen next month.

If the movie does right by the three men who helped inspire it, viewers entering theaters in January will be transported far away from Washington politics and talk-show static, taken back in time to a little more than three years ago: The story opens to darkness in Libya and chronicles the 13 hours between sunset on Sept. 11, 2012, and daybreak on Sept. 12.

Over those 13 hours, intense weapons fire lit up the Benghazi sky. And for former U.S. Marine Mark “Oz” Geist, the night brought mortar rounds, including one that killed Winchester native Glen “Bub” Doherty and Tyrone “Rone” Woods. For Geist, it left him with the memory of his two comrades dying instantly right before his eyes and of wondering about his own fate after the same blast tore open his left arm.

Geist wore a long-sleeved shirt during Monday’s series of interviews with local reporters. His wounds, which required a lengthy stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, could not be seen.

Seated in a first-floor Eliot Hotel suite alongside former Army Ranger Kris “Tanto” Paronto and fellow Marine veteran John “Tig” Tiegen, Geist said he hopes the upcoming Michael Bay-directed movie, set to be released in January, won’t focus on the politics in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack. After all, the book lives and breathes on factual accounts and not conjecture. Painstakingly researched and written by Mitchell Zuckoff, a former Boston Globe reporter, the narrative inspired Bay’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.”

Geist, Paronto and Tiegen only agreed to go through what Paronto described Monday as Zuckoff’s “slavedriver” approach to research because they believed the book he would write with them would be truthful and accurate.

“I couldn’t get him off the phone,” Paronto said of Zuckoff’s relentless questioning.  The book that resulted came out in September 2014.

Geist said he’s confident the movie version will help continue to educate Americans about the truth of that September night.

“The movie is not about the politics,” Geist said. “The movie is to honor the four guys who died on the ground. It’s to honor what they went through and to tell the story about what actually happened.”

Besides Stevens, Doherty and Woods, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith also perished that night, alongside Stevens.

The film based on the book opens in American theaters on Jan. 15. Yet once it became clear that Bay would call the shots from the director’s chair, hordes of critics appeared to close their minds to the idea that the screen version would retain the book’s veracity.

“It appears that Bay’s movie will attempt to squeeze and contort the painful events of Benghazi into a neat and emotionally satisfying narrative: Brave American military heroes must overcome cowardly suits and shoot a bunch of bad guys so that they may save the day,” wrote’s Max Fisher, who apparently based his assessment entirely on the trailer used to promote the film in theaters and online. “Bay’s movie seems destined to make the American public’s confusion over what happened in Benghazi and what it means much worse,” Fisher wrote in July.  

But for Zuckoff and the three men sitting inside the Eliot Hotel suite who fought through that fateful night, it’s exactly that sort of criticism which drove the agreement to write the book and help produce a movie. As for Bay, critiques of the blockbuster movie director, whose feature films include the “Transformers” series, “Pearl Harbor,” “The Rock” and “Armageddon,” are plentiful.

Zuckoff said he thinks it’s unfair for critics to jump all over Bay even before the release of the movie.

“People want to reduce Michael Bay to some sort of cartoon figure and that’s deeply unfair,” Zuckoff said. “He’s a very intelligent filmmaker and a very self-aware guy. He knows how people view him. He could have kept making “Transformer” movies by the billion but he chose to do this instead.”

Zuckoff said he remembers the first thing Bay told him when it became clear he would be the film version’s director: “‘This is the first real movie I’m going to make’”

Paronto said he is well aware of Bay’s penchant for blowing things up on screen explosions and staging wild stunts. He recalled that on one particularly loud and fiery day on the set, a producer connected to the movie actually apologized for the chaos.

“There was fire everywhere, explosions everywhere, trees were on fire,” Paronto said. “And he says he’s sorry and I ask him, ‘What are you sorry about?’”

“He said, ‘Well, Michael likes explosions and fire.’”

“I said, ‘You’ve never been in war before, have you?’”

As for those people who criticize Bay for his signature on-screen mayhem, Paronto said that he can “guarantee 100 percent” none have ever been in combat before.

“Of course he did his homework,” Paronto said about Bay. “He wanted to do it out of respect for us.”

Zuckoff has stressed repeatedly, both in the forward to the book and in appearances to promote it, that “13 Hours” is not an indictment of Washington or the media’s coverage of the event.

Yet Zuckoff also acknowledged that the impetus for the project was to tell the truth about what happened that night. Given the timing of the attack, less than two months before the 2012 election, and the movie’s release about 10 months before the 2016 presidential vote, there will likely be no shortage of partisan analysis and sniping over it.

“The book is a journalistic exercise of verification,” said Zuckoff. “The thing I’m most proud of is the fact there’s not been a single challenge to anything presented in the book.”

But ever since the Benghazi attack, the U.S. media coverage of the events has been defined by denial, spin and subterfuge.

The most recent evidence to suggest an attempted cover-up came to light earlier this fall when a batch of emails written by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton show that Clinton told confidantes within hours of the attack that it was carried out by an “al Qaeda-like group” of terrorists. The revelations came from emails Clinton sent to her daughter, Chelsea, and from her communications with Egypt’s prime minister.

Those emails contradict what Clinton told family members of those slain in the attack. According to Patricia Smith, mother of Sean Smith, Clinton told the families on Sept. 14, 2012, that the attacks were a random reaction to an odd anti-Islam video posted on YouTube

Clinton, however, has since refused to retract the statements she made to the relatives of the victims. Instead, she has insisted she never lied to the families. Asked about the issue earlier this month by ABC News host George Stephanopoulos, who was deputy communications director for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign and served as a senior White House political strategist, Clinton denied lying and said she told the families what she believed at the time, that the attacks arose spontaneously in response to a video on YouTube.

“This was a fast-moving series of events in the fog of war,” Clinton said. She added that a terrorist group had quickly claimed responsibility for the attack and retracted it soon after.

In a confrontation with U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., in a January 2013 Senate hearing, Clinton famously disclaimed, “What difference does it make?” whether the Benghazi attack had been a preplanned assault by trained terrorists or a spontaneous outgrowth of public anger over a video. Johnson had been trying to find out why the administration stuck with the inaccurate story that a demonstration had been going on outside before the attack began for days, when all the people in the embassy annex said the night was relatively peaceful up until that point.

Zuckoff said the misinformation over what led to the attack and the confusion afterward was what drove him to write the book. In addition, he has rarely mentioned Clinton or any other major player in Washington who was associated with the event.

“It’s a direct response to the politics,” Zuckoff said of the book. “Politics started to run away with the story. Nobody knew what these guys had done. Nobody knew about the heroism on the ground.”

“Nobody knew about these incredible 13 hours.”

Geist, Paronto and Tiegen said they are tired of talking about the politics associated with the event. Their sole mission in agreeing to work with Zuckoff and later the filmmakers can be summed up in one word: truth.

The dedication to unearthing as much factual information as possible while researching for the book took on a new meaning in October 2013 when the CBS News show “60 Minutes” aired a report on Benghazi that was later found to be rife with errors.

The biggest blunder, according to Zuckoff, was the failure to make a few phone calls to verify whether a key source was actually who he claimed to be. Correspondent Lara Logan had relied on information from a sole witness, who was referred to as Morgan Jones, which was a pseudonym for a security contractor named Dylan Davies. Davies told Logan, and later millions of Americans, that he was there during the attacks climbing the embassy wall to fight and entering the compound without getting permission from his higher-ups.

Davies, however, was shown to have made up the entire story.

“We almost had to physically restrain these guys,” Zuckoff said about the anger that consumed Geist, Paronto and Tiegen after the CBS broadcast aired. “I had such confidence in them though, after they insisted that the guy was never there.”

The false report prompted Zuckoff and the veterans to redouble their efforts to get the truth out.

“We decided we’re going to wait for our moment to tell the real story,” Zuckoff said. “By the time our book came out, the field was clear.”

Based upon the approach Bay took to recreate the scenes based on the book, all three of the contractors agreed they are confident none of those who were on the ground will be misrepresented. Paronto pointed specifically to his interactions with the actor Pablo Schreiber, who portrays him.

They spoke via Skype about twice a week leading up to filming, Paronto said.

“He did his homework,” Paronto said, adding that Schreiber even began chewing Copenhagen tobacco, as he did, to add realism to his character.

“I didn’t think he’d actually do it,” Paronto said of Schreiber’s indulgence. “But on the day I showed up on set, he’s got a can of it. He knows how to pack it. I’m thinking he’s faking it with beef jerky but he wasn’t.”

Paronto said Schreiber even asked him which side of his cheek he preferred for his chaw.

“They wanted to get it right,” Zuckoff said about the actors. “They were sponges, listening to these guys.”

Tiegen said that set directors paid special attention to recreating the embassy annex which served as a Central Intelligence Agency station in Benghazi.

At one point, some walls had to be repositioned on the set to accurately represent the situation, Tiegen said. “It cost them an extra $100,000 to do it but they did it.”

Paronto recalled how he felt when he walked on to the set for the first time.

“It took us back to Benghazi,” Paronto said.

The three will be taken back to Benghazi again this weekend in Los Angeles, where they are scheduled to watch a cut of Bay’s movie for the first time. Paronto acknowledged he’s a little nervous, adding he knows it will be an emotional experience watching an event he lived through play out on a movie screen.

“We keep having to relive it,” Paronto said. “It’s gonna be hard for us to watch but we’ve got to do it.”

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips.