Everybody has a story. The neighbor you wave to, the guy you pass on the street every day, the lady who sat next to you on the train. Your waitress, your kid’s teacher – virtually every person you meet either has more to them than meets the eye, or will move past your encounter with them to live an extraordinary life. John “TIG” Tiegen is a perfect example of this.
First he was inspired by a movie, then he was portrayed in a movie. You may have seen it; 13 Hours.
John ‘TIG’ Tiegen was living below the radar, working in heating and air conditioning. In and out of homes or businesses he’d go, getting the job done.
It’s unlikely any of his clients guessed he’d served in the Marine Corps, and even more unlikely they imagined their a.c. guy would become a nationally known hero smack dab in the middle of one of the most publicized and controversial incidents after 9/11/2001.
John was just a teenager when he enlisted in the Marines via the Delayed Entry Program. He’d wanted to be a Marine for as long as he could remember. Then along came the movie Full Metal Jacket. He watched that boot camp scene again and again, manifesting it for himself. Finally the day arrived when life imitated art, and John experienced boot camp for himself. He still winces at the memory of those “frikkin 20 mile humps.”
The Marine Corps got to hang on to John for four years. It was a “boring” time to serve, he says, from 1995-1999, but the boredom took a backseat while he was stationed in Twentynine Palms, California, and his future wife walked into his life.
Margaret Tiegen “is almost perfect,” John jokes, after he proudly notes she is also a veteran- albeit not a Marine. She enlisted shortly after they met, and they married after she completed boot camp. They swapped civilian and military statuses, she into the military and he out. The day the towers fell, the Pentagon was struck, and heroic Americans died in a field in Pennsylvania, John was a disabled veteran working as a heating and a.c technician.
He drove straight to the Recruiter after work, only to be turned down. Recruiters’ offices all over the country were packed with young strong candidates eager for some payback. There was no room for a disabled veteran in their ranks.
Margaret deployed to Kuwait and John kept his 9-5. They both knew he needed to serve again, so when Margaret found him an opportunity to apply with one of the overseas contracting companies, John had his resume ready.
In July of 2003 both Tiegens were overseas working as contractors. Their careers were not risk-free. They knew this and accepted it. “We were both prior military,” John explains, “so we just kind of went with the flow and dealt with everything that came.”
John’s “flow” took him into dozens of dangerous places and dicey moments. He was on his third trip to Benghazi in September 2012.
The first incident at the Annex was minor, relatively speaking. But after the night one grenade was tossed over the wall, the enemy came back another night. John was there the night a “Volkswagen-sized hole” was blown into the perimeter wall. It had been his turn on night shift, and “Bob,” was the chief of base.
John woke people up. They geared up and got the vehicle running. In about 15 minutes they were ready to go out there and send a message back to their enemy that it was not okay to blow holes in their wall. But Bob ordered them to stand down and stay there.
The enemy was growing bolder. Ambassador Christopher Stevens requested additional security. His request was denied. He was told the handful of men at the embassy, coupled with those at the consulate, was enough security for the situation.
The events of September 11, 2012, are disputed by many.
For John ‘TIG’ Tiegen and the others who were there, this dispute is infuriating and insulting.
He was there. He lived it. He breathed it -literally – as his throat and lungs burned from the scorching flames, searing his respiratory tract with each breath while he desperately searched the burning embassy for the Ambassador.
He’s matter of fact when he speaks about it. Time and repetition have taught him how to bury the pain below the purpose of him telling this story over and over. It’s important for he and his fellow survivors, Kris “Tanto” Paronto and Mark “Oz” Geist to tell this story as often as it takes.
While John would like to see accountability, he and the others’ primary purpose in the writing of their book, their support of the movie, and their independent efforts is noted in the beginning of the book, 13 Hours;
[clickToTweet tweet=”Their intent is to record for history, as accurately as possible, what they did, what they saw, and what happened to them – and to their friends, colleagues, and compatriots – during the Battle of Benghazi.” quote=”Their intent is to record for history, as accurately as possible, what they did, what they saw, and what happened to them – and to their friends, colleagues, and compatriots – during the Battle of Benghazi. ” theme=”style5″]
The book, the movie, their testimony, and countless stories about Benghazi recount the events as only those who lived them can do. John stands by those facts as he gave them. He will never forget those excruciating moments when his friends died. He cannot shake his anger at the unnecessary delays that cost the Ambassador and Sean Smith their lives, and he can only shake his head at the the “brain dead” CNN reports that insist no stand down order was ever given.
It’s the politicians on the Left, he says, who created the lies about that night in order to fit their narrative and cover up their own incompetence that lead to to the deaths of Americans in Benghazi.
As for those who believe media reports and career-focused politicians over the survivors of that night – “It’s just stupidity on their part,” he says.
In addition to the facts that only the survivors were there, that they are all Americans with upstanding records of service, and that they have no reason to lie, why, wonders John, do people so easily believe he and the others would tell the truth about everything else that happened, and lie about one stand down order? Why is it easier for so many Americans to believe in politicians and government employees- especially those whose own actions have included corruption and deceit- rather than him and the others who were there?
It’s notable that most of the citizens in Benghazi were more supportive of their presence than many Americans. John remembers the people in Libya as being eager to thank them – running across a street to buy them a drink and welcoming them into stores. They probably would have had dinner waiting for American troops after the firefight ended, says John – if any support had been sent.
He can’t change what happened that night, or restore lives to those who lost them. He’s mad as hell that Charlene Lamb, who he holds largely accountable for refusing to approve requests for additional security, is free to live her life without repercussion – word is she was even promoted – after her actions directly contributed to the deaths of four Americans.
“If you want things to be changed, people to be protected, that’s the only way you are going to change things,” he says – through accountability. It’s unfathomable to him that someone in her position could shirk her responsibility for the outcome of Benghazi by claiming she lost the paperwork off her desk. If there is one ounce of justice to be had for Benghazi, says John, Charlene Lamb should spend her life in prison.
He remains dumbfounded and perhaps even a wee bit wounded by the masses of Americans who insist he – not the politicians – is a liar or a traitor. But even while he remains committed to sharing this story, and screaming the truth louder than they scream the lies, he refuses to allow Benghazi to end his own life’s fulfillment or service.
John Tiegen had no choice but to take time off after Benghazi.
Long after he walked out of the hearings and debriefings, his respiratory tract remained compromised and injured from the burning air. He stayed home long enough to take care of things there and recover as best he could. Then he got back up and went back to work. He worked two more times as a contractor
Today John and Margaret Tiegen are the parents of twins and the co-founders of Beyond the Battlefield, a non-profit focused on helping combat veterans and first responders avoid being swallowed up in the gaping chasm standing between their service and a civilian life.
It started by chance – or divine intervention, depending on how you see things. An annual hog roast hosted by the Tiegens, meant as simply a fun day with good friends, turned into an unofficial fundraiser for John’s buddy. His fellow veteran needed brain surgery and the VA would not cover the cost. The Tiegens decided to help raise money through their hog roast, and welcomed that veteran’s buddy and family into their home.
Shortly after the event, John opened an email that lead the Tiegens to a new purpose. That weekend was going to be a last hurrah for the man they’d met at their hog roast. But, the email read, the camaraderie with the other veterans that weekend changed his life. Rather than killing himself as he’d intended, he’d found new hope and reason to live.
“That was it for us,” says John.
Beyond the Battlefield remains ready to assist veterans and first responders any way it can. And, says John, if they can’t help you through their foundation, he and Margaret will find someone who can.”There’s like 2- trillion non-profits,” he says (a pretty accurate count, we think). It’s more effective if these organizations work together. This is why he helps other organizations raise money, and refers veterans to them.
John “TIG” Tiegen is a survivor. He shirks off the title “Hero” and Lord knows the word is largely overused, but that’s what he is, too, not just because of his actions in Benghazi but because of his leadership after.
He sets the example for anyone gripped in the darkness of pain, trauma, or fear, by turning those things into a powerful and positive purpose.
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