Faith comes easier when everything else is hard.
Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paronto and John “Tig” Tiegen get it. As three of the real life “secret soldiers” portrayed in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (coming out this Friday), they know what it’s like to sit on a roof and wonder whether your next hour will be your last. They’ve felt the precious, delicate gift of life in a way that few of us have.
“People say ‘I believe in God,'” Tanto said during a press junket in Miami last week. [But] I know there’s God. I can feel it.”
13 Hours—which chronicles the harrowing night of Sept. 11-12, 2012, when Islamic extremists attacked a diplomatic consulate and a CIA facility in Benghazi, Libya—is not a Christian movie. But it does offer a nod or two to the faith shared by many of the security personnel on scene: Tig (played by Dominic Fumusa) offers a prayer over a fallen comrade. Oz (Max Martini) expresses a few tearful words of thanksgiving. And Tanto—played by Pablo Schreiber—says between firefights, “As long as I’m doing right with God, He’ll take care of me.”
Tanto actually said those words that night. And in that moment, he believed they were absolutely true. He recalls fighting near the diplomatic consulate in a pair of shorts, standing completely exposed to enemy fire. He says that he believed, without question, that God would protect him. “‘Ain’t nothing touching me,'” he recalled thinking. “You could just feel warm. It was really like a cocoon around you.” And when a friendly Libyan fighter sidled alongside him and started shooting with him, Tanto saw the guy as a gift from God—calling him my “Libyan angel.”
Oz says he felt much the same way. “[God’s] angels wrapped their arms around me that night,” he says. “They put their wings around me.” That night, he says, the CIA compound was bombarded by mortars with a kill radius of 21 feet. “I was within 15 feet of three of them, and I lived,” he says. Even though he was grievously wounded, Oz says that “[God’s] presence was there with me. It was what got me through.”
The three contractors Patheos talked with in Miami are not preachy folk. They do not thump their Bibles or pepper their language with Christianese. Indeed, outside the walls of the interview room, they probably use more colorful words: 13 Hours is rated R in part for language, and Tig says that “It’s pretty much rated PG compared to what we actually do.” Each man is quick to stress that he’s far from perfect.
But faith is a powerful motivator in each of their lives.
“You just have that belief in God and Jesus,” Tig says. “You know who they are.”
Tig says he went to several churches growing up, and it instilled in him a quiet, sincere faith that helped him in Benghazi. “There were probably several times that night that you thank God you’re still here,” he said.
Oz was raised in the Methodist Church, even singing in the children’s choir there. He says that the church helped form the cornerstone of who he is now. “That’s my foundation,” he says. “That’s my strength that gets me through anything. I know that He’s there in my life, no matter what. … It’s His hands that are going to guide me.”
Tanto went to church as a kid, too—but he admits that it took some time to take. He drank. He snuck out of the house a lot. He even started a few fires. “I still knew what wrong and right were; but sometimes, I just liked to do the wrong things.”
But once he got into the military, Tanto’s spiritual life changed. He began praying and reading the Bible every day. The war zones he found himself in, both as an Army Ranger and then as a contractor—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—have a way of deepening your beliefs: It forces you to depend on God in a way we don’t often need to in our cushy lives in the United States. “Your faith becomes real, real strong when you’re put in those situations,” he says.
And despite the danger, Tanto admits that he misses that spiritual urgency that comes with being in hot spots around the globe. “Honestly, when you’re overseas, you are your best person,” he says. “… I’m the closest I can be to what I think God wants me to be when I’m overseas.”
Tanto realizes that not everyone shares that confidence in God—though he suggests that, if they’d seen what he’d seen and been through what he has, they might change their tune. And when asked whether faith might’ve been actually to blame for what went down in Benghazi, Tanto rejects it out of hand. Religion doesn’t need to be divisive, he insists. Indeed, he’s seen it bring people together.
When Tanto was working in Kandahar, Afghanistan, years ago, he says that he helped bring in some suspected Taliban fighters. It was his job to pat them down—ensuring they didn’t have any explosive devices on them. But one man wouldn’t let Tanto touch one of his arms.
Tanto was getting angry and edgy, thinking the guy might well be toting around a weapon or a bomb. But instead of simply reacting, Tanto turned to a nearby interpreter and asked him what the man’s deal was. The interpreter told Tanto that the man was safeguarding his Qur’an, the Islamic holy book.
So Tanto pulled out his Bible and held it out to the Taliban suspect. “Tell him we’re the same,” Tanto said. “He can hold my Bible.”
Tanto says the man’s eyes grew wide at the offer, and the situation was diffused. Tanto says that his own faith gives him a better understanding of why religion is so precious to those he sometimes fights. “We are the same,” Tanto repeats. “We may be fighting on different sides, but in the end, we’re human.”
Take a look at this special featurette that features Oz, Tanto and Tig talking a bit more about their faith.