Talk by Benghazi veteran stirs social media protest
Sept. 23, 2017 at 9:06 p.m.
Updated Sept. 25, 2017 at 10:40 a.m.
Cassie Cameron understands why a protest formed about Kris "Tanto" Paronto's upcoming speech in Victoria College's Lyceum Lecture Series.
"I think that people assumed the protest had to do with his work as a soldier in Benghazi, and that assumption was invalid," said Cameron, of Victoria. "Paronto, while yes, an American hero for his actions that saved lives in Libya, uses divisive rhetoric in both his books and leadership seminars."
Cameron, a University of Houston-Victoria student, said she heard about the online protest but wasn't part of it.
The protest on social media encouraged those opposed to the talk to get tickets for the program but then not show up to decrease attendance to the lecture.
Paronto is the first speaker in the college's 2017-18 Lyceum Lecture Series on Oct. 2 at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts.
Paronto said last week his lecture would cover the emotions and feelings of camaraderie and heroism behind the experience.
"Is this a political bash? No," Paronto, 46, said. "This is the story about what took place."
Paronto was part of the CIA Annex security team that responded to the terrorist attack on a U.S. State Department Special Mission Compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
Those protesting on social media said they thought Paronto would talk politics and offend the members of the Victoria Islamic Center, whose mosque was burned in January. A suspect in the arson case reportedly accused all Muslims in America of being terrorists.
"The point of the boycott and peaceful protest was to protect local community members who have already been victims of racism," Cameron said. "The Islamic mosque here was burned in January just days after the presidential inauguration."
However, Cameron said she thought people could discern the differences between community members who practice Islam and ISIS.
"The problem is that inciting people that are predisposed to hold the religion in disdain could be very dangerous," she said. "The protesters locally feared that some people would find reason in his words to lash out at our local Muslim community."
Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller said he was appalled anyone would protest Paronto.
"It's really unfortunate and frankly shameful there is a group in Victoria that would try to censor an American hero telling his story, which is what this effort was," Zeller said.
Victoria College has taken steps to ensure all seats are filled. The lecture is sold out. The 476 tickets in the performance hall and 120 additional overflow seats have been filled.
Paronto's contract with the college states in more than one place that the talk will not be political, said Darin Kazmir, the college's marketing director.
The cost to bring the speaker was $12,800, according to the speaker agreement.
College officials do not anticipate a protest Oct. 2; however, security will be present, he said.
Although community members have the right to boycott, college officials said they were committed to giving those who want to hear Paronto's presentation the opportunity to do so.
"Victoria College does not take a position on the views of any of the speakers we bring to Victoria," Kazmir wrote in an email. "Kris Paronto's views are his own."
Paronto said he was excited about his first visit to Victoria.
Paronto grew up in a strong family environment, he said. His grandfather, who was his mentor, came to the United States from Mexico illegally and helped harvest corn, potatoes and onions. Before he died, he owned his own farm.
"He always taught us that we don't take handouts from anybody. ... Work until you succeed," Paronto said.
He was honorably discharged from the military in 1996 because of an infraction. After receiving his master's degree from The University of Nebraska-Omaha, he re-enlisted.
"I kept hearing my grandfather's voice: 'You cannot quit,'" he said. "I sucked it up and went back in."
Perseverance is the lesson he learned going through the process again, he said.
He became a security contractor in 2003. He was also a direct hire contractor with the U.S. government.
Paronto said his 10 years as a contractor gave him the opportunity to visit a variety of countries, including Afghanistan.
"I was blessed to see a lot of the world, not just behind a wall, but I experienced it being immersed in the culture," he said. "I loved these people."
He recalled the courage of the Egyptian interpreter, who was a Muslim, who fought alongside him without any experience.
"I didn't see Muslims. I saw my buddies," he said.
Paronto has discussed with the current presidential administration citizenship for foreign interpreters who have sponsors and have proven their patriotism, he said.
Paronto's faith in God is another aspect of how he was able to overcome adversity, he said.
"I don't tell people that this is the only God to believe in," he said. "A good Christian never says, 'If you don't believe in one, you go to hell.'"
The Rev. Andrew Schroer proposed several speakers, including Paronto, about a year ago on behalf of Redeemer Lutheran Church's outreach committee, Schroer said.
After the Lyceum Committee selected Paronto as a speaker, church officials offered to support the lecture financially to help cover the speaker's fees.
The church's outreach committee wanted to use the lecture series to engage with the community.
A friend of a friend knew Paronto's family, so Schroer looked into his story and the various talks he gave.
"He talks openly about how faith got him through," he said. "That doesn't mean we support everything he's ever said or we wanted to be political as a church."
When people saw Paronto was coming, they assumed he would talk about politics, Schroer said.
"I'm disappointed it got to this point," Schroer said. "The purpose was to bring a positive message to the community, not (a message) embroiled in politics."
Note: This story was updated Sept. 25 to correct the crops harvested by Paronto's grandfather.