[su_dropcap style=”light” size=”5″]T[/su_dropcap]here’s good reason to see the Paramount blockbuster film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. It’s the true story of a group of six former US military private security contractors who fight with awe inspiring bravery and professionalism to save the lives of their fellow Americans during the September 11-12, 2012 terrorist attacks on the American diplomatic compound and a CIA base (known as the Annex) in Benghazi, Libya. In a battle that eventually took on the feel of a small scale Alamo — odds
They opened a can of all-American whoop-ass on the terrorists
against them may have been higher than 10 to 1 — they steadfastly stuck to their guns, their duty as they saw it, and most importantly, they stuck together as team. They opened a can of all-American whoop-ass on the terrorists, won the firefights and made it possible to evacuate everyone to safety the next morning. A well trained, highly disciplined and motivated American warrior is a force to be reckoned with, and this comes out in the film’s heart pumping battle sequences.
Another good reason to see 13 Hours is that you probably don’t know what you think you know about how America really protects her interests abroad. The State Department and CIA have their own private security organizations to identify, hire and manage security contactors. Tens of thousands of former American military and law-enforcement personnel work for them in some very dangerous places, even our own American Shooting Journal executive editor is one of them. You hear very little about these contractors because their work in the diplomatic and intelligence communities requires them to keep their mouths shut. That’s how you keep a secret after all.
It might come as a surprise, but the typical CIA agent isn’t very much like James Bond at all. The guys the CIA hires to protect their agents and staff abroad are the heroes of this story. Those private security contractors are called Global Response Staff (GRS) and they make around $150,000 a year. That may, or may not, be good money depending on your feelings about being killed on the job. Dying is a very real possibility in this line of work. During the battle 13 Hours depicts, two GRS men were killed and another gravely wounded along with a State Department private security contractor (DS).
The man [CIA] in charge of the six GRS operatives, actually held them back for nearly 20 minutes
One thought provoking and disturbing aspect of the story is that the Benghazi attacks could likely have been prevented if the State Department had heeded warnings and beefed up security at the diplomatic compound. It was amazing to me to learn that the security at the front gate and emergency alert responsibility was left in the hands of a few disgruntled Libyan militiamen and three unarmed locally hired Libyan guards. It’s more amazing that nobody there thought that was a problem. The attacking terrorists ran into the compound through the unlocked front gate, and caught the relaxing DS operators completely by surprise. Bear in mind, the attack happened on the anniversary of the most successful terrorist attack on US soil, and nobody bothered to check the gate before turning in for the evening. As a whole, the US State Department comes away from this affair looking complacent and negligently indifferent at its higher levels.
As bad a day as it was for the State Department, the lack of a response from the CIA’s leading agent in Benghazi is comparably appalling. The man who was in charge of the six GRS operatives who tell their story in the film, actually held them back for nearly 20 minutes while terrorists swarmed and burned the diplomatic compound less than two miles away. While the CIA’s Benghazi chief tried by phone to get members of the local Libyan militia to rescue the Americans trapped at the diplomatic compound, two of them died. It should interest the reader to know that the militia he was calling for help was the same militia that had the responsibility of guarding the compound. The implication is that the CIA chief was deluded and/or misinformed and therefore incompetent.
Ultimately, rather than stand idly by while their fellow Americans were in danger, five GRS operatives at the Annex simply left on their own initiative, without orders or approval, and improvised a rescue at the diplomatic compound as best they could. Had they not done so, it is reasonable to assume American casualties would have been higher.
The GRS rescue mission to the diplomatic compound was only the beginning of a long night. They drove out the terrorists and fought off a counter attack while searching for the missing ambassador in the burning ruin of his residence. Unfortunately, the ambassador could not be found. Having killed and wounded an unknown number of attackers, they withdrew to the Annex, which the sixth GRS operative had already organized as a defensive base.
They repulsed two terrorist ground attacks
Prudently, the GRS operators had long worked out plans for defending the Annex against siege. Though surrounded by a curtain wall and fortress-like in appearance, they deemed it inadequate for a defense against anything more than AK-47s and a few RPGs. The six GRS operatives, joined by three of the rescued DS security men, took positions on the roof tops of the Annex’s four buildings and on guard towers they’d built against the curtain wall. Everyone else sheltered inside the command post.
They repulsed two terrorist ground attacks on the Annex and inflicted heavy casualties, but not without cost. At the start of the final attack at dawn, the terrorists used a mortar to target the roof of the command post building where two GRS operatives and a DS man were laying down a ferocious fire. The enemy attack was broken, but the mortar barrage left the four men on the rooftop dead or wounded.
I had the honor of interviewing two of the five surviving Benghazi GRS operatives about the film and the battle. Mark “Oz” Geist organized the Annex for defense while his teammate Kris “Tanto” Paronto was part of the five-man group that retook the diplomatic compound. Both men fought off the attacks on the Annex that followed, and Oz was gravely wounded in the final mortar attack.
American Shooting Journal Was there anything that the film 13 Hours left out that you think should have been included in the story?
Mark “Oz” Geist We sat down and discussed what should have been in and what shouldn’t, as a group and individuals. I’ve thought about it a lot and there’s not a lot that they could have put in that would make it any better. I really can’t put my finger on any one thing. Of course it would have been great to see more of Max Martini in some of the set up scenes, but that’s more of just a personal thing. He’s playing me, and getting him more screen time would tell more of the lead up to the story. For example, what I was doing out that night [that kept me from participating in the rescue mission to the ambassador’s compound], but that would have slowed down the movie, and I don’t think it would work from a theatrical standpoint. As it is, I don’t think you could have gotten better than what it was.
ASJ Do you think the film captured the feel of that night?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto Wow. As far as getting emotions down, to me, it did get the emotional effect that we were looking for. Speaking for myself, I was re-living a lot of those emotions that I had that night and in other crisis situations or operations I’ve conducted throughout the years. So that was important. It was basically a 13-hour event that the movie condenses into two. There is some melding of characters, and they had to skip some things, but the important [thing] that I was worried about was that it captured the feelings we had that night. The humor that goes into it — you see a bit of that, and when you read the book. It’s fun. There’s a lot of humor that comes into combat situations. That’s a coping mechanism. You get the great edge, you also get the horror of people dying and body parts hanging off and you also, you know, you get the satisfaction of working with the guys you love working with. All that came through. At least I thought it did. Last night was the first time I sat through the movie with an audience, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t look at their reactions. That wasn’t what I was there for. I don’t know how they reacted to it, but I do know that I react very strongly and emotionally when I see it. If it wasn’t done right, then I would not feel like that. It hurts, but it’s necessary, and I’m glad I feel it. [In] the movie script, they got it right. They got the emotion down.
There’s a lot of humor that comes into combat situations.
ASJ At the start of the attack on the compound, five of you were waiting in the car at the Annex for the CIA base chief to give the order to go. When you finally just left without orders, I thought to myself, “these guys are fired, they’ll never work again.” When you made the decision to go, did you realize it would end your careers as GRS contractors?
Tanto We really didn’t worry. Put it this way, it’s on your mind a little bit, but saving other people, saving human life, is way too important. Just doing the right thing — and that was the right thing — is more important than a paycheck. When you see the movie, John Krasinski [portraying the GRS operative pseudonymously named Jack Silva] says, “You can’t put a price on human life, you can’t put a price on how you’re gonna live the rest of your life when you could have had the chance to save somebody, and you didn’t because you were worried about your job.” There wasn’t anything that could have kept us from going.
For me, honestly, it was kind of a joke. I thought “Oh well, guess I’m gonna loose my job.” It wasn’t “Ahh shit,” it was more a ‘ha-ha’ trying to be funny sort of thing. And we did loose our jobs, but we still did the right thing. Money comes and goes. Your friends, man when they need you, you gotta go. When they need you in those situations where they are dying, money is nothing. I’ll get another job.
ASJ You’ve been pretty critical of your CIA team leader and Annex chief for lack of leadership. What was the crux of the problem?
Oz Our [CIA] team leader didn’t have a military background. He was a full time employee. He was not a contractor. That’s why he didn’t have the same military background that we do. He was the buffer between the knuckle-draggers and the intellects.
ASJ You being the knuckle-draggers, right?
Oz Yeah. (Laughs) Us being the knuckle-draggers.
Tanto (Laughs) Good looking knuckle-draggers though [grin].
Oz He just didn’t have the fortitude to step up and do what we thought was right at that time, and make that hard decision. Because being a full-time employee — I’m not making excuses — but a lot of times they just look at things different than we do. We do what we do because we’re out there wanting to make a difference in the world, and I can’t speak to why he does what he does. If we were career-oriented people, we would probably be in a different profession.
Tanto I had issues with the TL [CIA team leader] because I knew him when he first started as team leader, and he was not highly regarded by the operatives because he didn’t have military experience, let alone special operations experience. He came off like a new second lieutenant coming in who was trying to run the enlisted guys who have already been doing it (the job) forever. The reason I got upset with him was because he was going to get beat down in a lot of the places where we were, and I stuck up for him. It kinda felt like a slap in the face, like hey brother, I went to bat for you, stuck out my neck for you, I’ve known you, I helped mentor you, I’ve worked at some sites before Benghazi and now you aren’t listening to me. I took it a little personally because we had history before Benghazi.
ASJ At least he got in the car.
Tanto That’s it. He, yeah, at least he had the guts to get in the car.
Oz The thing is, it would have made him look even worse if he had not and we ended up leaving without him. He would have looked a whole lot worse being stuck there with one thumb in his mouth and the another thumb somewhere else.
ASJ Among your group of GRS operatives that night, was there a squad leader in the field? It seemed like the other team members entered the compound gate on Tanto’s word that he thought it was clear.
Tanto In that part I said, ‘Hey, just shoot, move and communicate and you’ll be fine.’ Which is lingo for ‘Hey, use your tactics, and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.’
ASJ So, basically you did this old school.
Tanto Yeah. (Laughs) We’re old. We’re all old.
Oz Hey, I’m only 50. That doesn’t count. I’m not old, I’m 50 young.
Tanto That’s a tribute to the teams’ maturity level. Tig [John Tiegen] was the youngest. He was 39. The rest of us were in our forties, and had been serving for a while. Yeah, were able to do it up close and on the take without a lot of talk on the radio. Just do your tactics. So, as far as there being a team leader, Rone [Tyrone Woods] was the assistant team leader to our TL for a title. But honestly, we all were either NCOs or officers. Myself, I was both. I was a mustang, enlisted and an officer. We didn’t have one leader per se, we all were leaders. So it wasn’t, ‘Hey this guy [go] do this and this.’ It was if somebody needed to say something, they’d do it, and people would listen.
ASJ And you didn’t know what you were going to find. You didn’t have a plan other than to go in there and find out what was happening, and see what you could do to save those Americans?
Oz You know, that’s what he talking about when he says, ‘shoot, move and communicate.’ You’re always looking for work when you’re doing that. You’re moving down there [but] you’re not just rushing in blind. You’re just moving as quickly and as tactically as you can, and each person is looking for the dead spot where somebody might be hiding and covering that area. As you go in, second by second you’re just analyzing everything that’s going on before your eyes. If there’s something you see that needs attention you just take care of it, and then everyone else on the team will react from your actions. This is how we work together. It’s just kind of a free-float teamwork concept.
Tanto We had a term for that in the military. It was called moving and working expeditiously. I had that ingrained in me since basic training. It means you’re moving as fast as the situation allows you to, and still maintain control. That’s what we were doing.
Oz It goes back to the training we have all had from SEALS, Marines, Rangers, etc. It all goes back to that.
ASJ Thank you gentlemen, or should I say knuckle draggers?
Tanto (Laughs) ASJ
Posted in Hollywood and Pop Culture Tagged with: 13 Hours, Benghazi, CIA, GRS, John Tiegen, Kris Paronto, Libya, Mark Geist, movie, Oz, Paramount pictures, Security Contractors, State Department, Tanto, Tig
Photographs by Rick Lambert and John Oliver
Two centuries ago, just as today, most tradesmen were simply mechanics who churned out serviceable work to meet commercial demands. True artists were few and far between, but it is the artists’ imagination and skill that allows them to make things of exceptional beauty and genius.
Frank and Lally House are artists. Though they specialize in traditional trades of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, their work far exceeds that of typical artisans. Frank creates Kentucky rifles, tomahawks, swords, knives and powder horns and Lally works with brain-tanned deer
hides and 18th century dyestuffs to create a nearly lost Native American Indian art form of porcupine quillwork and moose-hair embroidery. Both create almost all of their art from raw base materials in the same manner as they were created centuries ago. When not creating, you might find Frank and Lally at the Contemporary Longrifle Association (CLA) gatherings, an organization dedicated to preserving the knowledge of American gun makers and associated arts from colonial times through to the early republic. Recently, the Houses shared some of their observations and experiences as artists who might just have been born 200 years too late.
American Shooting Journal How did you get involved with creating historic weapons and accoutrements?
Frank House My older brother Hershel started this all off. He was born in 1941, so he’s somewhat older than I am, and my younger brother John and I spent our young life watching him work, hanging around his work bench, burning up all his coal in the forge and turning all of his scrap wood on the wood lathe and all that stuff. So, we’ve been in this since we were kids. Hershel started building rifles full time in 1966 and then founded the Woodbury gun-making school with hard work and dogged determination. His greatest contribution was inspiring those of us who grabbed that torch. He’s got a great imagination; never followed somebody else’s lead, and I picked that up from him. It’s one thing to copy a knife or a rifle or tomahawk, but it is another thing to come up with the concept from scratch and design your own artwork, your own engraving patterns and your own patch boxes and architecture. The tricky part is keeping it historically relevant.
ASJ I’ve read that the drop in demand for gun makers after the wartime needs of the American Revolution led to an increase of competition amongst craftsmen.
FH Absolutely! Competition and isolation fed a lot into that. Sometimes these guys were secluded in their own little enclaves and they had to rely on their own inspiration. They couldn’t go down the street to someone else’s shop and borrow their pattern. They had to develop their own styles.
ASJ How do you go about creating a rifle?
FH I have to come up with the concept first. I have to say, I want to create a rifle from this period in this caliber for this client who would have to come into my shop. He might want a .50-caliber rifle to hunt bear with or a target rifle that he’s going to take to the local shooting matches to impress his friends. I have to put myself into that frame of mind. I try to build a rifle based on what I would have had to look at, say, Thomas Simpson’s work or John Wilson’s (gun makers from eras gone by). What would I be building if that was my input? If that was what I was looking at and that was what I was seeing and surrounded by, what would I do? How would I make my work different, but still influenced by these guys? That’s the mindset I use.
ASJ In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, weren’t rifles a means of displaying a man’s social standing?
FH At that time there weren’t many ways of demonstrating your wealth; one was your plantation house. People always misconstrue the meaning of that. It just means a large farmhouse. A man’s house, horse and rifle were the only ways he had to show who he was, and they took a lot of pride in those things. Now we have cars and speedboats, new iPhones and flat-screen TVs.
ASJ The depth of your historic research is impressive. You’re more informed on early American history than my university professor.
FH I quit school in my junior year of high school, and I enjoyed it so much I went back for my senior year and quit again. Some people are cut out for academia and I’m not one of them. However, I’ve been exposed to historic weapons and accoutrements for 40 years. I’ve been a full-time artist since 1988 and Lally since 1990. I do a lot of restoration work on original weapons, tomahawks, the whole thing, so I get the opportunity to handle and take pieces apart to see how the work was done. It all contributes to education.
ASJ Neither you nor your brothers started out doing this. How did you come to the decision to make your living creating historically inspired pieces of Americana? I read that you were a boilermaker – nothing seems farther away from being an artist. The boilermakers I knew were rugged, plain-spoken union men who liked sports and drinking beer.
FH I still like sports and drinking beer [smiles]. My father was a boilermaker and my grandfather an iron worker. We came from a long line of heavy construction. I was actually national graduate apprentice of the year in 1985 among all the new journeyman in the country. I was a good boilermaker. I was a wonderful welder, but there’s something that won’t come out in a welding rod. There’s something in you that absolutely has to come out. You can’t help it and if you don’t let it out, you’re a miserable son-of-a-bitch.
ASJ Did your father think you were crazy quitting a good-paying union job?
FH Yep. My father never had an artistic bone in his body. He was one of the hardest working men I’d ever met. My mother was artistically inclined. She was a country music songwriter and musician.
ASJ Hasn’t this type of gunmaking always been a custom business, with clients coming in with their special requirements and having their rifles made to order?
FH Yes, but our work is in such demand, actually, that as long as it’s good it will sell, and our work is always good. We simply don’t turn out substandard work. We spend the time. That’s one reason we’re not as financially successful as some people think we should be, but no weapon leaves our shop until it’s finished. At this point, hell, I could take ten rifles to a show and probably sell five of them, maybe all ten, but then I only make two a year.
ASJ To say your work is good is quite an understatement. You don’t just make rifles either.
FH I also do restoration and knife work and a few other things. Hershel makes guns in addition to his knife work. John is primarily a knife and sheath maker and Lally is “eye ball” deep in her porcupine-quill work and moose-hair embroidery.
ASJ So there aren’t now and never will be a whole lot of House rifles out there?
FH Nope. Never will be. Hershel in his career, early on, did a lot of simpler, plainer mountain rifles and things like that to pay the bills getting started, but after he got his legs under him and got his mojo working, he slowed down. These guns are a tremendous amount of work. One of the things that makes this a very difficult occupation is that you literally have to master six, eight, 10 different vocations to be able to build a rifle from start to finish by yourself. You have to be a pretty damn good blacksmith, an architect, and you have to do some engineering work because all the mechanical aspects of the rifle have got to work. You have to be a foundryman, a carver, an engraver, a silversmith and a goldsmith. There’s a whole lot involved in making a rifle, and it takes a lifetime to master it. That’s one reason there’s not a lot of people who do it. If you’re talented enough to build a rifle from start to finish, there are a whole hell of a lot of other things you can do that can make a whole lot more money. I’m just being honest.
ASJ The rifles you make now are not the basic weapons that the
average guy looking to hack himself out a homestead on the frontier would buy. They are the high-end
pieces that would have been commissioned by the most successful and wealthy landowners. Back in 1790, fine guns like that would have taken a master gunmaker a half a year to build too.
FH Exactly right, and that’s one reason why these really great rifles are so rare. Because there wasn’t a great deal of them built to begin with. Only a handful of really great guns have survived.
ASJ You have a depth knowledge of American culture that most museum professionals will never have. How did you and Lally get involved with Hollywood, where they have a reputation for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story?
FH It’s a strange story. Randy Wilkenson, a friend of ours in Los Angeles who was working on the film The Patriot, brought in a rifle I’d made him and a horn strap that Lally made for a prop department show-and-tell where the director looked over all the props to decide what he liked and didn’t like. The director said he wanted our pieces for the movie. Wilkenson said he couldn’t have them because they were his own personal pieces. The director asked him, “Well, who made these, because I want them to do this for us.” That’s how it started. Then Mark Baker (a subject matter historian and writer) and I went down there and did the gun training for Mel Gibson, Jason Issacs, Heath Ledger and all the actors, and did a really good job for them. They got my name in their rolodex. We went from there to Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean and even Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for which Lally and I did all the monkey war clubs, spears and staffs props to give them an aged Neolithic look. I’m up to 16 shows now. Some of them major, some of them minor but all of them pretty big productions.
ASJ Lally, it seems to me that an unfortunate byproduct of today’s vast world market is that it has cheapened the value of handwork of all kinds, including art. What would have been a prized possession a century ago is now something you buy at the dollar story. Have you observed this too?
Lally House Yes. An example is Native American beadwork, which was once a highly collectible American art form until the Japanese started making loom beadwork. That changed the whole game for the really good bead workers out there. Because shop owners and importers brought in cheaper Asian-made products, people started to feel that the American handwork wasn’t that important of an item. I’m so glad they don’t do anything with quill work or moose-hair embroidery.
ASJ Embarrassed to admit my own ignorance, I had never heard of this art form until I saw your work.
LH Porcupine quill and moose-hair embroidery were almost extinct as art forms by 1800 when European-made glass beads became the dominant trade item with the native tribes on the America frontier. It’s not hard to understand how this almost happened 200 years ago. A handful of brightly colored glass beads was easy to store and the Indians didn’t have to do the preliminary work that goes along with quills and moose hair. Imagine having to trap the porcupine, pluck and clean the quills, gather the natural dyes and dye the quills before you can even get started.
ASJ So, porcupine quill and moose hair embroidered items were commodities?
LH The pre-1800 eastern woodland Indians commonly used quill and moose hair embroidery to decorate their personal items. Since it was so popular as a decorative art, it was a highly valued trade item between individuals and tribes. They made a lot of what we would consider tourist-souvenir decorative items, like wallets that would be hung on the wall to hold important personal items, pin cushions, eye-glass cases, picture frames and anything you can imagine that a European or Native American might want. More traditional items would be powder-horn straps, hunting bags and knife scabbards.
ASJ How many artists still do this type
LH There’s probably less than a dozen of us who do Eastern Woodland Indian-style work. Of that dozen, maybe five or six of us make our sole living this way. For many, many years, I was the only person using all-original 18th century natural dies, the same dyes used in early settlements and
ASJ How did you get started in this esoteric art form?
LH I grew up in Louisville. I had a great history teacher in 4th grade who sparked my interest and I learned how to do research from some elderly ladies in my local branch library. I found a book on quillwork and the rest I had to learn from studying surviving pieces in private collections and museums. My main goal is to ensure that this beautiful and culturally important
art form is kept alive. We aren’t just in jeopardy of losing an Indian art form, we are in jeopardy of losing a uniquely American art form. ASJ
Note: Those interested in helping Frank and Lally House preserve our nation’s history through the living art of its craftsman and women should consider supporting the Contemporary Longrifle Foundation. You can get more information at their website at ContemporaryLongrifleFoundation.org.
Posted in Hollywood and Pop Culture Tagged with: Contemporary, Contemporary Long Rifle, Dawn of the planet of the apes, Disney, Embroidery, Frank House, Frank Jardim, Kentucky, Lally House, Long Gun, Master and Commander, Moose Hair, movie, Porcupine Quill, Rick Lambert Photography, Rifle, The Patriot