To Hell and Back: The Untold Story of the Real Heroes of Benghazi

They survived Benghazi only to become unwitting players in a never-ending scandal. If they have to fight, they’ll fight — but this time it’s to protect their own.

The plan was to make jack-o’-lanterns. John Tiegen and Mark Geist have brought their families out here, to the scraggly wilds of Tiegen’s 40-acre Colorado property, so the kids can carve pumpkins while the men hunt small game. But the guns prove more appealing to everyone, so the plans converge. “Cover your ears, guys,” Tiegen says as he slaps a 14-round magazine into his NEMO Watchman, the Ferrari of semiautomatic precision rifles. To his right, Geist stares through the scope of his custom AR-15. Then they light up the pumpkins. Orange guts explode. The kids cheer. The men move on to the animals.

“Want me to skin that?” Geist asks, pointing to a rabbit with a bullet in its head. Geist’s family settled on the eastern plains more than 100 years ago. He grew up the way kids here always have, with guns and horses and Wild West lore. He can tell the time using nothing but the horizon and his fist. Point to a random tree or cactus and he knows its name. He, like Tiegen, is a man of self-reliance. And so he places the carcass on the ground, kneels over it, and pulls back the sleeves of his camouflaged jacket. His left forearm is a map of scars. He’s always been proficient with a knife, but these days, his thumb doesn’t flex naturally; he has to compensate, clamping the knife hilt between his fingers and his palm. “I used to be faster at this,” he mutters.

The black memorial bracelet on his wrist flashes in the sun. Tiegen wears one, too. It reads: Tyrone “Rone” Woods, Glen “Bub” Doherty/Libya 9-12-12.

Two of the dead in Benghazi.

On September 11, 2012, militants stormed the U.S. consulate in Libya’s second city and killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Of the five armed guards who saved more than 25 lives that night, three have publicly stepped forward: Tiegen and Geist, who live near each other in rural Colorado, and Kris Paronto, who’s in Omaha. (The other two have been identified only by pseudonyms, Jack Silva and Dave Benton.) If you want to know what actually happened in Benghazi, go read something else. The worst night of their lives has already been rehashed ad nauseam, and there are a million contradicting versions to choose from. 

The real story of these men—their lives before that night, and their lives after—is far more complex than any conspiracy theory. And now that Benghazi has gone from personal tragedy to national drama, they struggle with how to maintain control of their own stories.

Some tried returning to the battlefield. “I told my son that I was thinking about going back to fight bad guys, and he just about lost it,” Paronto says. He has three kids—an 11-year-old boy, an eight-year-old girl, and a newborn. They grew up with a dad who went off to work in dangerous places and always came home—each time a little rougher around the edges, yes, but all in one piece. Then, after Benghazi, he took a job in Yemen. He’s a professional gunslinger; what else was he going to do? “My little girl, she never used to cry when I left—but when I left to go to Yemen, she cried and cried.”

“I told my son I was going back to fight the bad guys, and he lost it.”

But after going public with their story, that wasn’t an option anyway. The men were ostracized by the CIA and the State Department. No hero’s welcome or ticker-tape parades on their behalf. That’s because they were not soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines. They were private security contractors—a distinction that means very little when bad guys are pointing guns at you, but turns out to mean a lot when you’re back home in America, having just shed blood in the name of your country. They now feel abandoned and disillusioned, and so they’ve retreated to what they know—their land, their families, each other—while they figure out what’s next.

Later in the day, the rabbit skinned and gutted, we hop into Geist’s Z71 4×4 truck. He pulls out his phone, the same one he was carrying when the French 81-mm mortars hit, and shows me a picture of his friend’s gravesite in California. It belongs to one of the men killed by his side in Benghazi. The words Fierce Patriot are engraved on the headstone. Geist turns on the stereo.

“Ever heard this?” he asks. It’s Radney Foster’s “Angel Flight,” an ode to pilots who fly fallen soldiers home. All I ever wanted to do was fly, the song begins, and Geist eases up the volume. Geist is quiet and direct, dressed head to toe in camouflage. But as we drive past cornfields and grain silos, he begins singing along. Come on brother, I’m taking you home. It’s not a performance; it’s like a man speaking the truest words he knows. He finishes the whole song. 

The charred remains of the building where Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith were killed.

What were they even doing in Benghazi? They were just working the next job, in what seemed like a never-ending series of opportunities for men with military experience who preferred to make a living outside the military. All three were reared on God and country in rural Colorado, and each entered the service right out of high school. The grandson of a decorated WWII veteran, Geist saw the Marines as the obvious continuation of a childhood spent hunting, shooting, and being outdoors. “I didn’t see much point in college,” he says. For Tiegen, the Corps was the only perceivable gateway out of town. He spent nearly every day after school hanging out at the local recruitment office until he was old enough to join. Paronto, who played wide receiver at Colorado Mesa University, was preparing to try out for the Broncos when an Army recruiter spotted him in a crowd. “I think he saw sucker written on my forehead,” he says. “He showed me this video of Rangers jumping out of helicopters, and I said, ‘Sign me up!’” 

By 2003, the year the U.S. invaded Iraq, all three had completed their military service and were back home. Geist had become a bounty hunter, after a brief stint as his hometown’s police chief. Tiegen was a heating and air-conditioning technician. And Paronto was fresh out of the Army, discharged on medical grounds after doctors diagnosed him with Crohn’s disease. None had seen combat during their service, and all missed the military lifestyle and camaraderie. 

The military prohibits soldiers from pulling back-to-back deployments. But there’s another option for people who prefer to make their living in war zones: private security contracting, which provides steadier work and better pay than Uncle Sam. There are plenty of these jobs to go around, as the U.S. increasingly outsources to companies like AirScan and DynCorp, turning military contracting into a multibillion-dollar industry. Tiegen, Geist, and Paronto quickly fell in love with the job; back then, in the early days of George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” coalition forces were scrambling to establish a foothold in the Middle East and private firms were free to operate on the battlefield with little oversight. “It was like the Wild West,” says Geist of his first contracting gig in Iraq with Triple Canopy, in 2004.

In theory, contractors play a strictly defensive role, usually guarding government officials and embassies in war zones. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy usually brought the fight, they were often forced to go on the offensive. That’s what makes contractors so attractive to the Pentagon. They draw fire that would otherwise be directed at American forces, while “not getting counted as boots on the ground or, if something goes wrong, as casualties,” explains Georgetown University professor of security strategies Sean McFate, author of The Modern Mercenary. “They’re invisible people.”

For most of the three men’s careers, the risk seemed manageable. They all eventually landed on the CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS), an elite paramilitary unit—of contractors—responsible for protecting spies operating in volatile countries, sometimes in places beyond the U.S. military’s reach. Benghazi was one of those postings. 

This isn’t the space to relitigate what happened next, but it’s important to know: Tiegen, Geist, and Paronto felt abandoned and expendable. At one point, Tiegen says, he and several other GRS operators were chased through the streets of Benghazi by a group of men armed with AK-47s, and the senior CIA officer in Libya—a man known publicly only by his alias, “Bob”—refused to send help. “Bob treated us like lower class,” says Paronto. When the consulate was stormed, the Pentagon sent a surveillance drone and no additional help.

Nine months after the attack, in the spring of 2013, the team reunited for the CIA’s memorial ceremonies for two of their fallen colleagues, Woods and Doherty. By this point, the events in Benghazi had become a political football; politicians and pundits had plenty to say, but nobody had heard from the guys who were actually there. “Five minutes before the ceremony starts, the CIA hits us with nondisclosure agreements,” says Paronto. “After that, we all sat down and were like, ‘What are we going to do—start telling the truth?’”

This is a question many soldiers have wrestled with after emerging from the battlefield under controversial circumstances. When Dakota Meyer, a former Marine, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan in 2009, he used the spotlight to accuse Army commanders of denying crucial artillery support to his besieged unit, which lost four men in a Taliban ambush. Likewise, after Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, a fellow Army Ranger revealed that he had been pressured by his superiors to keep secret that Tillman was accidentally killed by members of his own platoon. In both cases, the results were messy but productive: The government, when publicly chastened by its own heroes, will take action.

Paronto, Tiegen, Geist, and the other two contractors signed the NDA—they didn’t want to cause a fuss at the memorial—but decided to write a book anyway. Less than a year later, their work, 13 Hours, quickly became a best-seller. They were invited onto TV shows and to political rallies. Their careers with the CIA were over, but something new and completely unexpected was beginning. Within six months, Hollywood came calling, too. And that’s how they went from being the secret soldiers of Benghazi to Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. The movie comes out in January. 

John Tiegen and his son at home near Colorado Springs.

Can war stories have superfans? This one does. It’s early October, Tiegen’s 39th birthday, and we’re celebrating at his ranch-style house on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. By 7 p.m., the party is in full swing, and kids are chasing each other all over the place. And there’s this woman there. She’s young, attractive, with eager brown eyes. She offers me a Budweiser with a patriotic red, white, and blue label. “The beer of heroes,” she calls it. Then she starts talking about Benghazi.

I’m not expecting this—not here, at least. To Tiegen and the others, Benghazi is almost shorthand for “what you don’t know about me.” They aren’t the Benghazi Guys inside their own homes; they’re just men who survived some awful shit and are out of a job. “We did the right thing, people crapped on us, and here we are,” Paronto once told me. “Really, it’s that simple.” When the guys were on Michael Bay’s movie set in Malta, there to ensure a Hollywood-ish level of realism in the film, the wives didn’t even come along. “It’s their thing,” Tiegen’s wife explains. Home and Benghazi: They can never truly be separate subjects, but the families build the best firewall they can.

This woman didn’t get that memo. I ask her what it is about Benghazi that resonates with her so deeply, and she responds by quoting the book 13 Hours, the way college students cite philosophers. “Numerous times, Jack Silva says, ‘We probably won’t make it out of this one, but we have to keep trying.’ It’s so profound to me,” she says, citing the pseudonym of one of the still-anonymous Benghazi contractors.

The conversation goes on like this. She seems to have the book memorized. I look around the kitchen. Who is this person? In my peripheral vision, wives have congregated, listening, and I get the feeling I’ve stepped out of bounds. The woman then reads me a poem she wrote, titled “2132,” for the time when the attacks began. Later, I excuse myself and ask a few of the wives who the woman is. The best explanation I get is basically: She introduced herself at a book reading, she’s very emotionally invested in the story, and now she’s just around.

“We did the right thing, people crapped on us, and here we are. It’s that simple.

This is the strange phenomenon of losing control of your own experience. Everybody knows at least something about it, and they fit it into their lives in ways big and small. When actor Pablo Schreiber, who plays Paronto in the film, visited Paronto in Omaha, the fathers discovered their sons chasing each other around the backyard with toy guns—“playing,” they said, the Battle of Benghazi.

Sometimes people are even actively disinterested in the honest version of events. The men are regularly invited to speak about their experience, and the first time Paronto ever did, at the Army Navy Club in D.C., the promoter pulled him aside afterward and told him that his speech was depressing. So Paronto went back to his hotel and revised it, to make it more inspiring. “We could’ve given up a bunch of times that night, but we never quit, and we saved lives,” he says now. “ ‘Never quit’—I sign that in all my books.”

Geist and Tiegen are less comfortable speaking before an audience, although they realize that in talking about Benghazi, they can at least draw some income while they figure out what’s next. The money from the movie and the book deal have earned each guy about what he’d have made in two years of overseas contracting—hardly life-changing money, but a welcome stopgap that enables a few small luxuries, like an expensive bottle of scotch. That’s what Tiegen is pouring shots of when I find him downstairs in his basement-turned-man-cave, late into the night at his party. A serious poker game has been going on for hours.

All shots are poured. A doctor told Tiegen that he has fat on his liver, so he’s not supposed to drink, but he allows himself just this one. We raise our glasses.

“To the fallen,” a woman says. I look over to see who said it: It’s the superfan.

Kris Paronto in Omaha, Nebraska

There’s a Starbucks in a Target in Omaha where Kris Paronto knows everybody’s name. I travel here to visit him before heading to Colorado. “This is my Zen place,” he says, circling the counter to give the woman behind the register a big hug. As she gets started on his “black eye”—a large cup of coffee laced with two shots of espresso, his usual—Paronto explains that this is where he’d always come to clear his head whenever he returned from overseas. “I’d just get my coffee and walk around for hours,” he says. “Contracting isn’t like the military, where they send you to talk to a counselor the second you get off the plane.”

This likely isn’t how the average American imagines a military contractor. The industry’s public reputation was largely established in 2007, when a group of Blackwater employees killed 17 Iraqis in Nisou Square. Contractors seemed like faceless and unaccountable brutes, fueled by sweetheart government contracts that ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Blackwater became such a tarnished brand, the company changed its name twice—to Xe Services in 2009, and then to Academi in 2011.

But outsourced fighting has only expanded since then, and contractors have counted for more than half of the American workforce in Iraq and Afghanistan. When in the field, contractors often take orders directly from the U.S. government. And yet, they’re not entitled to the same medical or death benefits as military veterans. “A lot of these guys are deeply patriotic, but they don’t get any respect,” says McFate, the Georgetown professor. The way he sees it, military contractors are this generation’s Vietnam War soldiers—people who put their lives at risk for the American cause and then came home to a scornful public. “We have an all-volunteer military, so what’s the difference between the soldier who volunteers for the Army versus someone who gets hired by one of these companies? Why is one automatically more noble than the other?”

Paronto certainly agrees with that. He’s a former Army Ranger, but he now feels a kinship with his contracting brethren. Benghazi was just an extreme example of their struggle, he says: They’re protecting innocent people in war zones, and are rewarded with continued hardship and deep suspicion. Now he’s suspicious of the government; a faded don’t tread on me flag hangs from the flagpole in his yard, on the edge of a sloped forest about 20 minutes from downtown.

As speaking requests have rolled in to all three men, Paronto has been the most eager to take them. He gets paid about $5,000 per gig, and he packs his schedule. When we meet, he’s  just booked a talk at Pepsi’s New York headquarters. But he speaks with purpose; he wants to tell a noble story, to change how Americans see and treat contractors. So he’s guarded about the circumstances he puts himself in. When a publicist relays a TV news interview request, he dismisses it. “I’m not going to do it if it’s any of that Bill O’Reilly–type shit,” he says. “I’m tired of the media just using us to push their own agendas.” 

Of course, with both the Michael Bay film and the elections looming on the horizon, the real media onslaught has yet to begin. As the House committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks continues to devolve into a political slugfest, more people may turn to Paronto, Geist, and Tiegen for answers. At events, they’re often approached by people with tears in their eyes, heartbroken by the idea that their own government would ever abandon citizens in a war zone. Disillusioned as he is, Paronto’s instinct is to console. Yes, he says, Benghazi was a debacle. It exposed critical weaknesses in the system we trust to protect us. But a few good Americans were willing to step up and risk everything—and that’s our country’s strength, and the story worth telling.

You’re supposed to act different than how you normally do, because you’re in the limelight,” Tiegen says. “That’s probably the most annoying thing. I’m not going to change.” What would need changing, anyway? That’s open to speculation. Certainly, he’s not a character that every social corner of America would understand. He’s wary of the government, which may be why he’s currently teaching his three-year-old son how to shoot an AR-15. But whatever: Let America have its book and movie about his life, because he doesn’t want to read or watch either anyway. They both start with his friends alive and end with them dead. “I know what’s coming,” he says. 

How will they move on from Benghazi? It’s a question they ask themselves. Sure, the experience has led to paid speaking gigs and some level of fame, but to what end—to just relive their worst experience over and over again? “All these people I don’t even know want to be buddy-buddy,” Geist says. “The principal at the local school calls me Hollywood. ‘Hey, Hollywood!’” Meanwhile, they’re still suffering a physical toll. Geist has endured 14 surgeries and still has only partial mobility in his left hand. His short-term memory has also yet to fully recover from the explosions. Tiegen suffered smoke inhalation, which scorched his lungs and left him with a perpetual cough. He now has thoracic outlet syndrome, which drained his strength by what he says is about 50 percent. “I tried going back to work,” he says, “but when we’d go to the shooting range, my pistol would just fly out of my hands.”

Interest in them will fade. This can only last for so long. They know it. “Once we’re no longer the flavor of the month, what do I do?” Paronto says. “I don’t get to do what I love anymore.”

Geist wants to show me what he’s been planning, so we hop in his truck and drive down amid the cactus-dotted hills and alfalfa fields. He started breaking and riding horses as a young boy on this land, and raised hogs for pocket money. For fun, he and his friends would make bets to see who could sneak up closest to an antelope and shoot it with a .22 pistol. “We rarely got them,” he says, “but it taught me how to use the terrain.”

Once we’re no longer flavor of the month, I don’t get to do what I love.

We drive past a house he bought for $20,000. He’s been renovating it ever since he returned from Benghazi. “It’s been good therapy,” he says. Then we head to an old tomato cannery on the edge of town. Inside, in a dimly lit nook, shelves are stacked with copies of 13 Hours. Photographs of Woods and Doherty hang on the walls. Geist hands me a flyer for Shadow Warrior Project, the foundation he and his wife recently started. The flyer reads: “To honor our brothers who are contracted to serve their country silently behind enemy lines and through their heroic and courageous acts have fallen or been injured.”

As we’re leaving his office, Geist turns to me and says, “Tiegen deserves a medal for what he did that night. If he hadn’t pulled me off that roof, I’d be dead.” 

That evening, back at Tiegen’s, we all settle into the man cave to watch the trailer for Bay’s 13 Hours on his big-screen TV. After that, we stumble upon one of the Internet’s all-time lamest video genres: people filming themselves watching movie trailers. 13 Hours has proved to be a popular muse. We pull one up. “It didn’t feel really right or left wing, just kind of natural,” says a gangly hipster with a slash of bleached hair across his forehead. Geist and Tiegen are intrigued, so we watch another. Then another. And then we find one that features a bulky dude in a gray Aeropostale shirt. He’s sitting in a small apartment—his refrigerator is visible on the left of him, and his bed on the right—smirking and brow-furrowing his way through the trailer. I watch Geist and Tiegen as they watch this guy, who wants other people to watch him watch a movie based on the lives of the people I’m watching. And then Aeropostale Guy turns to the camera—in effect, turns to Geist and Tiegen—and says, “Hmm, true story, told Michael Bay–style,” and he laughs. “So you know it didn’t go exactly like that.”

Tiegen stands and flips on the lights. He’s done. But Geist remains seated.

“Yeah,” Geist says, staring at the screen. “It’s a true story.”

Photos by Sebastiano Tomada