Capacity crowd packs Benghazi veteran's talk
Oct. 2, 2017 at 10:18 p.m.
Updated Oct. 3, 2017 at 6 a.m.
A sense of humor got Kris "Tanto" Paronto through the 2012 Benghazi attack.
"That's what war is - it's a lot of guys being brothers and saying the worst one-liners from movies because you have to pick yourself up," said Paronto, who was working as a security contractor when terrorists attacked a CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.
The former-Army Ranger was the first of three speakers for this year's Lyceum Lecture Series by Victoria College, which aims to bring in speakers from around the globe. The audience filled the Welder Center, which seats 476 people.
Despite protests from some residents who worried the talks could spur anti-Muslim sentiment, Paronto clearly distinguished the difference between Muslims and radical terrorists during his lecture.
"If you're a terrorist, you're not a Muslim," said Paronto, who said he fought alongside Muslims while working in the Middle East.
The audience laughed and gasped as Paronto described the sounds of rocket-propelled grenades and firefights during the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, which inspired the film, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi."
During the talk, he explained how he used a state department SUV to shield his shins from enemy fire and how explosives thrown toward his team resembled a cartoon image of dynamite. He recalled what it was like when his peers were killed and the feeling when explosions knocked the wind from his chest.
"Benghazi is not about politics," said Paronto. "Benghazi is about heroism."
The crowd listened intently during the hourlong event despite the fact that some Victoria residents protested the lecture weeks earlier for fear it could become political just months after the Victoria Islamic Center's mosque was set on fire. To protest Paronto's talk, a small group of residents took to social media to encourage people to reserve tickets so there wouldn't be enough seats left for others to attend the lecture.
County Judge Ben Zeller said efforts to reserve tickets by a private Facebook group were a "cowardly attempt" to protest the lecture.
There have been other speakers in the past that Zeller didn't agree with, he said.
"A lot of people will praise free speech when it benefits them," Zeller said. "And then when they see something they don't like, they try to shut it down."
Cassie Cameron, a University of Houston-Victoria student who wasn't part of the protest, said she was worried Paronto's talk could be misinterpreted and incite negativity toward local Muslims.
But after the talk, Cameron said she was pleased that Paronto denounced extremist terrorists - and spoke against banning or deporting Muslims.
"I was really impressed and surprised," Cameron said.