13 Hours: An Interview with 3 Soldiers Who Fought at Benghazi

This Friday, Michael Bay’s latest film, the war action-thriller 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, explodes onto screens. The movie depicts the controversial Battle of Benghazi, Libya, which started on September 11, 2012 and ended the following morning.

Instrumental to the making of the film were former Marines Mark “Oz” Geist and John “Tig” Tiegen, and Ranger Kris “Tanto” Paranto, who served as specialists and advisors on set. Oz, Tig and Tanto lived and breathed the Battle of Benghazi—two of their friends were killed, and Oz in particular suffered critical injuries.

I had a chance to sit down with these three highly entertaining gentlemen—they might take offense at me calling them gentlemen—to talk about what it’s like to go from battle to helping to make a Michael Bay movie, and to have actors play them on screen, among other things.

So what’s it liking going from being Marines to working on and promoting a Michael Bay movie?

Tanto: He better fix his question right now.

Oz: Well I know, because we don’t want you classified as a Marine. Tanto is a Ranger.

[At this point I start thinking about whether a certain colleague failed to give me the correct information, or whether it was my fault. I will blame said colleague.]

Tanto: I used to be stationed here. I partied down at PollyEsther’s. I remember getting drunk as shit. Pioneer Square, Rainier Square, just passed out on the sidewalk. A lot.

Sounds like a good evening. Where are you based now?

Tanto: I’m in Omaha, Nebraska.

Tig: My wife is stationed there. She used to make fun of the Rangers, said they look like a bunch of girls.

Tanto: You can let them start with the questions, I’m still waking up.

Well, my question still stands.

Tig: What was the question again?

So, what’s it liking going from being on the ground as Mariners and Rangers to working on a Michael Bay film?

Oz: Well, being a part of the military is probably easier.

Tanto: Well, for the Marines it is.

Oz: There you just yell at people. Here, you have to talk all nice and peaceful and you have to deal with a Ranger.

Tanto: I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.

Oz: A movie is definitely something I never thought I’d be involved with, that’s for sure.

What it’s like to know that an actor will be playing you on screen?

Tanto: If we hadn’t become friends with them, it’d be weird. Since we got to know them, each of them did a great job getting to know us personally, not just the tactics and what we did on the ground, but what we are like personally. They took the time to earn our respect. It’s going to be nice for me to see if they got it right or not. All word that I’ve gotten from people who have seen the movie, he did a very good job–Pablo Schreiber plays me. Other than that, I’m looking forward to it.

Oz: Same thing, Max Martini plays me. It’s kind of, I don’t know what the right word is, but me and him look much alike in the movie so it was just kind of different. Definitely not something I thought about, even in my wildest dreams, or nightmares. <laughs>

Tig: It’s just weird.

You were on set, providing guidance to the actors and filmmakers. Since you’ve become friends with the actors who portrayed you, what will it be like if they mess things up?

Tanto: Well that’s what was easy: even minor things, like putting your hand wrong on a machine gun, you can go in and say, turn your hand over, and they’d redo the scene or fix it. Pablo sacrificed his lips and gums because he never chewed Copenhagen [chewing tobacco] and I did. I said if you want to look like me, you need to look like you’re dipping Copenhagen and I thought he was going to fake it, but when I got on set he was actually chewing Copenhagen. If something is off, they’d say “Roger that” and fix it. They’d even say “Roger that,” which is a military term.

<Oz laughs>

Tanto: If you start it, dude…

Oz: I didn’t say anything, I’m just sitting here laughing. It’s my internal voice laughing.

You haven’t seen the final movie yet. Do you think it’ll be hard to watch something you lived through… such a crazy, real experience? Do you have a sense on how you’ll react?

Oz: For me it’s going to be a bunch of different emotions. From a technical side, just seeing how things are done and if it’ll be a good movie the way I expect, there will be excitement. Or anger, whichever one, depending on how it comes out. Also going back over some of the events–we lost two of our teammates–it’s going to be difficult on that, too.

Tanto: Just emotional, and I’ll have to watch it over and over and over. I’ll have a lot of pride if it’s done well, and I have no doubt that it will be. Knowing that the story is up there on the big screen and etched in history… I know there’s a book, but having a movie in pop culture means a lot. And I’m very proud to see on the big screen how badass Tanto really is. <laughs>

Oz: When you jot down Tanto’s name, you can put in parentheses “narcissism.” <laughs>

Tanto: I can’t argue with that.

Knowing that most movies take dramatic license with stories and other scenes, have you accepted that it’s not going to hold to every little thing.

Tanto: We got to read the script and go over the script.

Oz: If you even understood the script.

Tanto: I can’t play off the joke if I didn’t hear it.

Tig: If you understood the script…

Oz: It’s a Marine thing.

Tanto: Well, it wasn’t in Spanish.

Tig: I didn’t understand it, it was freaking confusing. <laughs>

Tanto: I’m going to leave that one alone. So we had an idea of how the script was playing off the book and you can’t put 13 hours into a movie, but as long as they got the brotherhood down and the main characters, including us–as much as they could into a movie with six guys—as well as the main actions that took place that night, I’ll be happy. It’s not possible unless you want to do a 13-hour movie, you can’t put the entire book into a movie, but I think they did a great job of portraying the key pieces, and the firefights—especially the main one—getting them accurate.

What was that day like? Was there any sense of anything different from the day before?

Oz: No, every day is like that when you’re in places like that, you’re always expecting something to happen. That’s a common question we get… “Well, it was 9/11, did you think it felt any worse?”… We don’t work in places where it’s ever “less dangerous.” It’s always a high-threat situation and you always have to be on your toes. For example, and you see it in the beginning of the trailer, when they get jammed up at the checkpoint.

Tanto: That’s a daily occurrence.

Oz: You could have driven down this road a hundred towns and not encountered a checkpoint, and for whatever reason, they decided to throw up one that day. And you don’t know what group it is most of the time. Benghazi had ten or so militias and they’re all vying for control. For power, it’s all money. One controlled the airport, one controlled the trucking traffic, the other something else, so…

Tig: For me, had it happened the day before it would have been better because I ran a half marathon that morning.

The morning of the attack?

Tig: I was dragging a bit.

Tanto: It took him nine hours.

Tig: That’s about it, the only difference between that day and the day before was the half marathon.

Tanto: When we all started working our contracts, and this is feeding off why we don’t treat it as any other day, the stress levels are always high. An example of why that would be, we used to be able to contract with the State for as long as we wanted. I remember contracting and staying away for 15 months and guys would come home–you don’t realize the stress they’ve been under–there would be a lot of domestics, a lot of divorces, lots of alcoholism and suicides, and so they started to cut the deployments down to just two months and if we wanted to go higher than that, we could go two months and two weeks, and that’s what actually myself, Tig and DB did. We decided to stay there for the ambassador’s trip. So why I’m saying this is that it goes along with what Oz is saying, that we don’t treat any day any different. Just because it was 9/11 doesn’t mean our stress levels were any higher. And that’s what we do, we just kind of feed off that.

As things start going down, you just get into battle mode. Was it not until the day after that you really comprehend what just happened?

Tig: Probably on the bird to Germany is what I’d say, at that point you know you’re out of there and the worst thing that could happen then is the plane crashes.

Oz: I was upset because he was supposed to bring me a drink.

Tanto: I did, too.

Oz: No, you didn’t.

Tanto: I did. You passed out.

Oz: No I didn’t.

Tanto: I put it in your IV bag. I did, I poured it in there.

Oz: He said he was going to bring me a drink after my first surgery and he didn’t do it.

Tanto: He was out. I drank it for him.

Tig: Well your first surgery was in Tripoli.

Oz: Well that’s what I’m saying… I said where’s my drink and he didn’t bring me one. I should have known. A Ranger… should have asked a Marine.

What was your injury?

Oz: My arm got blown off, or pretty much. Got hit in the neck and chest, 20 or 30 holes in me. I was standing next to Ty and Glen when they got killed. Three mortars hit the top of the roof, which killed them. And then John came up and saved my life, which is the worst thing that ever happened to me. Because now he holds it over my head. Every day.

Tanto: You shouldn’t have done it. It’s your own damned fault. Why’d you do it?

<Tig shrugs>

Oz: But on a serious note, if it wasn’t for him, Dave was injured, too, and he came up before the debris had even settled and got a tourniquet on Dave and me and was already checking on Ty and Glen and that’s the first time the guys inside the building made it up to the roof, so if not for his quick actions, there could have been two more dead.

Tanto: When that kind of thing starts, you just do your job. You rely on each other and you don’t think about dying, because if you think about it you’re going to die. You don’t think about “this is awful,” and honestly, you think, “Game time, let’s go!” Anticipation is the worst. Getting out the gate and starting, that’s when it all turns into fun. But just waiting, waiting and waiting and when you’re hearing that your buddies are getting their asses handed to them and… you can see the firefight, we weren’t that far away… you’re just, “OK, it’s time to go. Let’s go.” And frankly, seeing tracers and explosions at night, it’s pretty cool. Put that on your bucket list, you have to see it once.

Maybe from afar.

I have a hundred more questions about that day, but I’ll end on a lighter note. Do you have a favorite Michael Bay movie?

Oz: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

Other than that one.

Tanto: I liked The Rock. That was a good movie, and I was impressed that they used real military and their tactics.

Tig: I thought Bambi was really good.

Tanto: That’s not Michael Bay, dude.

Tig: Oh.

Tanto: That’s Disney.

He’s going to remake that. A few more explosions…

Tig: No, I like Transformers.

Oz: I’d have to say Bad Boys. They were good. But all of his movies, people get caught up in all of the explosions and stuff, but if you look back, what they all have in common is that it’s good versus evil, there’s teamwork, there’s overcoming adversity. I’ve never really paid attention before, but now with this movie, listening to the critics say, “Oh, it’s Michael Bay, he can’t do this or that.” But he does it in every movie, he just shows overcoming adversity in a different way.

Tanto: And they have comedy in them.

Oz: Yeah, that’s why we had Tanto… I mean Pablo.

Tanto: Shia LaBeouf is funny in the Transformers movies. That’s why Michael Bay is perfect for 13 Hours, because when you read the book or watch the movie, I was joking around all night. There’s a seriousness to it, but there’s also comedy to it. I think he’s the perfect fit for it.

Tig: Pearl Harbor would have been better had it not been so girly…

Tanto: I’ll watch it tonight.

Tig: Bumblebee would have been a better fit than Tanto.

Tanto: He tried to play me, he wasn’t tough enough.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Action Movies, Featured, War Movies