13 Hours: An Interview with Benghazi CIA Contractor [REDACTED]
The following article, based on interviews in 2015, is being published for the first time in recognition of the sixth anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Missions in Benghazi, Libya. Names were redacted and the author’s name changed.
As [REDACTED] prepared to leave for his contracting job in Benghazi, Libya, where he was working private security protection for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), his wife had a bad feeling.
She was accustomed to her husband’s overseas tours as a member of the elite Global Response Staff (GRS), a team of former military members who protect CIA officers in conflict zones.
Over a ten-year period, [REDACTED] had worked as a private security contractor and had served with GRS in Iraq and Pakistan multiple times. Perhaps because it had become routine, she felt better about him going to places he knew well.
But this time felt different. He was behaving differently, getting his affairs in order, including his will, which he hadn’t done before. At the same time, he tried to reassure his wife by downplaying the danger, telling her it would be “beautiful” and “kind of like a resort town.”
[REDACTED] always made the most of his assignments, taking in the local culture while absorbing information about possible threats and vigilantly guarding those he was assigned to protect. “It’s gonna be great,” he told his wife.
When he landed in Benghazi in [REDACTED] 2012, he was struck by the debilitated infrastructure. There was no functional government. Militias had stepped in to fill the power vacuum after the downfall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi almost a year earlier.
Security was always on his mind. He and his [REDACTED] GRS teammates met regularly with their counterparts at the nearby State Department compound, located less than a mile from the CIA Annex.
As September 11 approached, Diplomatic Security discussed the upcoming visit by US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and asked for [REDACTED]’s input. He advised State to “go big” on the ambassador’s security protection because Stevens’ presence was sure to spark local interest. The State Department instead favored a “low profile” approach.
On September 7, [REDACTED]received a short, cryptic text from her husband: “I’m so ready to come home.”
“What is it? What’s going on?” she asked him during a phone call. He wouldn’t say, only that he’d tell her when he was back home.
On the evening of September 11, [REDACTED]was out at a meeting in Benghazi with a female case officer when a call came through.
“There’s something going on at the State compound,” GRS officer Tyrone “Rone” Woods relayed. “You need to get back to the Annex.”
Rone didn’t need to say anything more. [REDACTED] knew something serious was happening.
When he got back to Base, his teammates had departed for the nearby State Compound, answering pleas for backup from their State counterparts who were protecting the Ambassador and under fire from militants.
The five GRS members made their way toward the U.S. Special Mission Compound, exchanging fire with militants along the way. They found the Mission on fire, thick plumes of heavy black smoke complicating the search and recovery of the two men in the villa’s safe haven: computer expert Sean Smith and Ambassador Chris Stevens. The group recovered Smith’s body but couldn’t find the ambassador. His body would be returned the next day, dead from apparent smoke inhalation.
The GRS team evacuated their State Department colleagues to the CIA Annex, where [REDACTED] was busy preparing for a possible secondary attack.
The second wave of attacks would soon begin. Throughout the night, GRS exchanged fire with militants. [REDACTED] was posted on top of Building C with two other GRS members, Rone and Glen “Bub” Doherty as night gave way to morning light.
“This is the time when they’ll launch another assault,” [REDACTED] observed. But he didn’t expect mortars. The incoming bright basketball-sized balls of fire were directed at their position. The first one knocked Bub over. Rone opened fire with a machine gun. The next mortar rounds would prove fatal. Rone lay in a fetal position at [REDACTED]’s feet. Both Rone and Bub were dead. Knocked down by the force of the blast, [REDACTED] attempted to fire back but couldn’t raise his arm, which hung at an awkward 90-degree angle.
September 12 began with promise in central Colorado, where [REDACTED] and his family call home. “It was going to be a good day,” his wife recalls; her morning routine included dropping her then 16-year-old daughter off at her new school. It would be a half-day and the two had plans to get their hair done together after school let out.
She returned home with her 7-month-old baby girl and around 8:00 a.m. tuned into the Today Show, a favorite for its fun banter and light news. As she watched, her eyes moved to the bottom of the screen, where a news ticker scrawled across: “Four killed in Benghazi.”
Her heart stopped.
“No, no, no, that’s not right,” she said out loud to herself. She switched channels, each reporting the same bare facts: four men killed; two names were still not public.
The attack on the U.S. compounds in Benghazi had raged over night for 13 long hours. But it was now evening in Benghazi and the battle that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead had been over for seven full hours.
She frantically texted and called her husband, hoping he would pick up but there was no response. At first, “of course, I freaked out and started screaming,” but then she leapt into action.
She needed answers. She called [REDACTED]’s contracting friends, hoping they had heard something. But no one knew anything or if they did, they weren’t saying. She got on her computer and googled the U.S. Department of State to get ahold of the main number. “I started calling every number I could” but no one would give her any information and instead “they just kept passing me along.”
“I didn’t call CIA because I couldn’t find the number.”
Unable to get anywhere on the phone herself, she realized that someone was either going to call her or she’d get a knock on her door. She asked her mother to come over and picked her daughter up from school.
The wait continued. Desperate for information, she alternated between watching TV and scouring the internet for news of [REDACTED], examining photos for any trace of her husband. “Is that him?” she asked herself, at one point thinking she recognized her blond-haired all-American former Marine.
“I was just trying to find anything and, of course, I couldn’t.”
At 5:00 p.m., nearly 16 hours after the attacks in Benghazi had ended, she finally got a call.
“We have [REDACTED] here,” the voice on the other end of the phone 5,000 miles away relayed. [REDACTED] had been medevacked out of Libya and taken to Landstuhl, Germany. Once he was settled, the nurse told her, the medical staff would let him call home.
Unaware of how critically injured he was, she focused on one thing: her husband was alive. “I felt like I had taken my first breath in a week.”
The not knowing had been the hardest: “all day I just wanted to know one way or the other.”
It wasn’t long before her phone rang again and she heard [REDACTED]’s familiar voice, now raspy from the exhausting 13-hour fire fight, the surgeries and general anesthesia, casually say “Hi honey.”
He didn’t let on how badly he was injured, deceptively telling his wife that he’d broken his arm. “Oh good,” she thought, “that’s no big deal.” The rest of the conversation was like a dream, she was so thankful her husband was alive.
From Germany, [REDACTED] was flown to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he would remain until early October.
[REDACTED] traveled from Colorado with her two daughters to meet him there. When they arrived at Walter Reed, the staff asked if they were prepared to see [REDACTED], whose injuries were severe.
He had sustained shrapnel wounds to the neck and left arm, and would undergo 14 surgeries. The nerve damage was significant and he would not regain full use of his left hand. His chronic pain would be life-long.
As she walked in to his room, “it was the greatest feeling in the world” but one that was also jarring. Her strong husband, she noted, “isn’t supposed to be lying there like that.” They hugged and she crawled into his hospital bed, thankful he was alive.
“How is your head still attached?” she, a professional nurse, marveled. “This is a gash almost to your jugular vein. How are you still alive?”
“Well, I didn’t want to really worry you,” he replied, explaining why he had downplayed the extent of his injuries.
The road to recovery would be long and difficult. Fiercely independent and accustomed to doing things on his own terms and being the one to help others, [REDACTED] struggled with needing assistance.
“It was hell,” he acknowledges years later.
When he returned home “broken and wounded,” their Colorado community was unaware one of their own had been affected by the events a world away. The naturally private couple was also bound by a non-disclosure agreement. “We weren’t supposed to tell anybody,” they explain.
During one visit to the grocery store, [REDACTED] grew frustrated with the seeming obliviousness of his fellow Americans. “These people are so clueless. They have no idea what’s going on in the world, that there are people out there fighting for their freedoms. They are clueless,” he grumbled to his wife.
It’s a sentiment familiar to those who have served in combat and return to normal, everyday lives. The adjustment can be difficult.
“He kind of struggled for a while with that. It was tough on everybody.”
The family wanted to seek professional counseling but encountered red tape from the CIA, which was concerned they should confide only in cleared personnel. [REDACTED] was angry, his wife distraught, and their 16-year-old’s life had been through a whirlwind.
At her breaking point, [REDACTED] told their Agency contact “I can’t do this anymore. I need help. They need to do something.” She was told “we’ll have someone there tomorrow.” But no one ever showed up.
The family also struggled financially. With [REDACTED] unable to work, their income was cut to a fourth. As an independent contractor, he didn’t get his contract paid out, and tried, without success, to land a job.
“As trying as it was sometimes financially or [REDACTED]’s emotional state, I always felt hopeful,” she says, crediting her faith and her belief that “if God brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it.”
While she admits “I felt let down a lot, I felt alone a lot, I worried about him a lot,” she insists “I never doubted that we would make it through it.”
“To me, it was never a question of ‘do I give up?’ or ‘can I deal with this?’ It was never anything like that. It was ‘one, we’re gonna get through this and he needs me more than anything right now so we need to be stronger and be there for each other.”’
The couple has forged close friendships with fellow GRS Benghazi team member [REDACTED]and his wife [REDACTED]. They, and other family members of those involved in attacks, have come together.
It was a group decision by the remaining members of the GRS team to share their stories with the public.
Author Mitch Zuckoff interviewed the men, giving them voice recorders to recount their first-person experiences in the lead up to the Benghazi attacks and the fateful 13-hour fire fight. His page-turner offers multiple perspectives into the unfolding events on the ground.
“I know it was hard for them,” says [REDACTED]’s wife. “There were probably multiple tears shed. I know there was anger. There were a lot of emotions they went through” reliving the battle. “But I also think it was very healing for them to be able to tell their story.”
He agrees. “It’s probably been as much of a healing thing as anything.”
The story of the firefight in Benghazi, recorded in Zuckoff’s 13 Hours: the Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, was brought to the big screen in 13 Hours, directed by Michael Bay.
At the time of writing this article, [REDACTED] were busy with appearances and speaking engagements, promoting the film.
The recognition validates their actions in Benghazi, their families agree. “They are heroes and they deserve our respect.”
Nevertheless, the whole experience has been surreal for those involved. It’s not an experience that will change them as a family, intent on keeping their lifestyle low-key.
But she does hope the movie sparks interest in Shadow Warriors Project, a foundation they established to provide support to private contractors.
The author is a former [REDACTED] whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.