The attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, is probably something Hillary Clinton hopes to avoid talking about today as she passes through Denver to organize local campaign supporters.
The presidential hopeful has tried to move beyond the controversial topic since participating in congressional hearings about Benghazi last month.
But clearly, the attack still holds lots of interest for the public.
Clinton's visit this week happens to come on the heels of another promotional tour: Two Colorado security contractors who participated in the Battle of Benghazi were in Denver to discuss their role in the upcoming Michael Bay film, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
Set to be released in mid-January, the film is based on a book that the two Colorado contractors and former Marines, Mark Geist and John Tiegen, co-wrote with journalist Mitchell Zukoff and three other surviving members of the Annex Security Team.
On the night of September 11, 2012, the team was guarding a CIA compound in Benghazi when the nearby U.S. consulate fell under attack by Islamic militants. The six contractors wanted to help defend the consulate but were told by a CIA base operator to stand down. Eventually, after hearing repeated and desperate pleas for help over their radio, six contractors disobeyed the stand-down orders and went to defend the consulate. That night, they saved dozens of lives, though they did not reach the compound in time to save U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and diplomat Sean Smith.
Michael Bay's upcoming film on the subject has some critics fearful that the director will give Benghazi a Transformers treatment, overwrought with explosions and oversimplified in story. But the Colorado members of the security team, Geist and Tiegen, have been saying that they feel the movie will accurately portray their experiences.
On Monday, they sat down with Westword to discuss their decision to write a book, experiences in Colorado since returning home, hopes for the movie, and frustrations with local and national politicians.
Westword: When writing your book, two of the other surviving members of the Annex Security Team decided to keep their names private. What considerations went into coming forward, and how long did it take for each of you to decide to publish your names?
Geist: To do the book took a while, because it's not something we ever planned on doing. But what frustrated us — especially myself — was that the story got hijacked by the politicians. There's four Americans that gave their lives. Two of them died next to me. And a bunch of politicians are sitting here, trying to take it and spin it for their own benefit — both the left and the right — and forgetting that these four Americans are the ones who should have been honored and their story should have been told. It was even getting convoluted about what happened to [the deceased] because of the spin.
The only way for us to make sure that we got it right, as we experienced it, was to put it in a book. We decided to do it as a team; everybody was on board. As for myself, I was injured, so I knew I couldn't go back to work, and I didn't have a problem going public. The more [of us] that are public, the more credibility we have with the whole story. Two of [us] chose not to because one still likes to work in the contracting world. [For] the other one, his wife didn't want the extra notoriety.
Tiegen: I was the last one to come out of the closet. It pretty much came down to two days before they were going to print the book.
Did you have a pseudonym before, and then you decided to put in your real name?
Tiegen: Yeah. It's harder for people to attack three people than two. So the author kept talking to me.... I finally just said 'Okay, okay.'
So now that you've both come forward, what's the support been like in Colorado?
Tiegen: Well, not really a whole lot in Colorado, to tell you the truth [laughs].
Geist: The people have been supportive, but I expected more interest from local media. I'm from eastern Colorado, about fifty miles east of Pueblo, in Rocky Ford — I was born and raised there. The Pueblo Chieftain didn't carry it, the Colorado Springs paper didn't carry it, there's no Denver paper that's ever contacted us or reached out to talk about the story.
But the community's been supportive? Do people in your home towns know about it now?
Geist: Yeah, because when we did the documentary with Breitbart — I live in Fowler, Colorado, which is 1,260 people — you can't walk down the street with a news crew following and not have everyone know what's going on within five minutes.
I also read that [Annex Team member] Kris Paronto was born in Colorado. Are there a lot of private security contractors that come from this state in particular?
Teigen: You know, it's hard to say, because we're so spread out, but there's a lot of contractors that live here.
Geist: I think what draws guys like us to this state is that it's an outdoor state. You know, who ain't gonna want to ski [laughs]? Skiing, huntin,' fishing, all of that.
WW: Since there's so many of you here, do you stay in touch after you've retired?
Geist: [From] Fowler to where [Tiegen] lives is about 45 minutes, and we never knew each other before Benghazi. That's how private our lives were. Even a lot of guys I worked with, I knew their call sign but not their real name, just because we never used it.
That must have been a trip to learn that you live 45 minutes from each other.
Tiegen: Unfortunately [laughs].
Geist: Yeah, and I've hated it ever since [laughs].
What's your hope for how this movie will be received by audiences?
Tiegen: A lot of people are going to see the movie thinking, "It's going to be about bashing Hillary" or something like that, and they're going to realize it has nothing to do with politics. It's going to be a gut check for a lot of people.
Geist: Yeah, it doesn't have to do with left or right; it has to do with right and wrong. And the right thing to do that night was, you had seven Americans in danger that were going to lose their lives if somebody didn't do something, so we went over and did what we could. And in the process, unfortunately, the ambassador and [diplomat] Sean Smith were already dead because of smoke inhalation. But we ended up having to rescue their own security detail from getting killed. When we got back to the [CIA] annex, we had anywhere from 25 to thirty-plus people [with us]. I just can't see why people wouldn't do what's right. So what I want people to take away [from the movie] is that there are people out there willing to give their lives and sacrifice their freedom and their family to serve this country. That's what you had with the ambassador and Sean Smith and Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
It also sounds like you'd like to set the record straight about what happened that night.
Geist: Here's the truth: This is what happened as we lived it. Come in with an open mind, watch the movie, and take what you want from it. The movie goes into what contractors go through with their families, being gone. Both me and [Tiegen] had been contracting for ten years, and seven were overseas. The ambassador was the same way. So the even bigger picture is that Benghazi is just one place in this world where — and we have almost 300 diplomatic facilities in the world — where there's people doing this, and people don't realize that.
Was it a weird experience to see yourselves played by famous actors?
Tiegen: Yeah, it's still kind of weird [laughs].
Geist: Of course, we still haven't seen the movie yet either, so...[chuckles].
What are your plans for after the movie is released?
So it sounds like the plan right now is rest. You don't have career or activism plans afterward?
Geist: No appearances, no.
When did you start working on the book? How long has this whole process been?
Tiegen: We kinda started thinking about it in early 2013.
Geist: I think it was November 2013 when Mitch [Mitchell Zuckoff] started writing about it.
Tiegen: Yeah, 'cause like we were saying, the politicians were spinning it and it was pissing us off.
Mark, I read a report on KNUS that you and Kris [Paronto] had campaigned against former senator Mark Udall for trivializing the Benghazi attack – that you were frustrated that Mark Udall never reached out to you and you were supporting his replacement, Cory Gardner.
Geist: Campaigned against him? No.... The deal with Mark Udall was that he was making comments about Benghazi, and we live right here. He could have easily called and found out the truth. It's not like he didn't know who we were, and that never happened. That was the crux of the statement that was made.
Okay. Since Cory Gardner was voted in as senator last election, has he been any more responsive?
Tiegen: I haven't heard from him.
There's a lot of buzz about Hillary Clinton coming to Denver this week to organize her caucus supporters in Colorado. What do you wish you could say to her?
Geist: I don't have anything to say — good, bad or indifferent. It's not about Hillary. It's about four Americans. This is the problem: Everyone wants to make this a political thing. There were four Americans that died, and instead of focusing on what they did, they want to talk about Hillary or about what she did or didn't do. The people who are responsible for the death are Ansar al-sharia — they're the ones that killed them. If you want to blame someone, blame them. But to turn it into politics — that's lowering yourself to where everybody else is...and as you can see, it angers me.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.