Mark “Oz” Geist, who fought the Battle of Benghazi, continues battling on behalf of America’s shadow warriors
Photos by John J. Radzwilla
Mark “Oz” Geist, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, private military contractor, and member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Global Response Staff, was on the roof of a clandestine CIA facility in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, battling to protect the facility from members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Sharia. Geist and a handful of his compatriots had already fended off two assaults on the CIA “annex” during the night, one of them involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) hurled at their positions. The third assault, which would be the fiercest yet, came at just after five in the morning.
That’s when more than 40 militants attacked the annex with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), 81-millimeter mortars, and AK-47 assault rifles. After one RPG slammed into the facility’s back wall, not far from Geist and his friend Tyrone S. Woods—another GRS contractor and a former Navy SEAL—the extremists opened up with belt-fed machine guns before lobbing three more mortars. One of them killed Woods and knocked the left-handed Geist off his feet, ripping his left arm apart. “As I stood back up to shoot, I brought my left arm up to grab my gun, and my arm wouldn’t work because it was hanging off about six inches up at about a 90-degree angle,” Geist remembers. “I continued firing with my other hand a little bit when another mortar hit, taking out Glen [Doherty, another CIA contractor and former Navy SEAL], and I got shrapnel from that one.”
At that point the militants took off, prompting Geist to later say, “I think that was God helping us out there.” He was eventually transported to a hospital in Tripoli with “about 20 or 25 holes in me,” he recalls. In addition to his arm injury, “I got hit in the neck, four or five times in the chest and stomach,” Geist says. “There was shrapnel near my femoral artery, shrapnel near my carotid artery, and a bunch of other holes all over the place.”
The early-morning, September 12 attack on the CIA annex closely followed a more widely publicized assault by Islamic militants on the main American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which was located about a mile away from the CIA facility. That attack, which came at 9:40 on the evening of September 11, resulted in the deaths of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. Both assaults were pre-planned and coordinated, despite initial claims by the Obama administration that they were “spontaneous” uprisings protesting the release of an anti-Islamic short film on YouTube.
For their efforts, Geist and his colleagues were credited with saving the lives of more than 25 Americans who were airlifted to safety once the fighting at the annex ended. The heroism of the military contractors was recounted in a 2014 book that Geist co-authored, titled 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, and in a 2016 movie called 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
The Battle of Benghazi marked the most dramatic point in Geist’s career as a Marine, law enforcement officer, and contract military security worker. It’s a career that has its origins on the farming and ranching plains of southeastern Colorado, where Geist’s great-grandfather, a German who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, first settled in 1910. Geist grew up there in a little town called Rocky Ford, and his extended family continues to live in the area today. His grandfather, Arthur Shoup, owned a 5,000-acre farm, where young Mark was introduced to shooting and hunting, mainly for upland game. “I started learning with a .22,” he recalls. “My grandfather would set me and my brother up on the hill overlooking the pastures, and we would shoot prairie dogs. Our job was to keep that prairie dog population at bay. They’re not a very big critter, and they’re very alert to what’s going on around them.”
As a teenager, Geist broke horses for his grandfather when he wasn’t playing high-school football or riding rodeo—mostly on bulls and bareback broncs—during the summer. His grandfather was “really my hero,” Geist says, not least because of his distinguished service in the U.S. Army.
“He served in World War II as a tank commander,” Geist says. “He had the North African campaign medal, as well as the Silver Star, a Bronze star, and five Purple Hearts.” Geist also had three uncles—two who’d served in the Navy, one a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam—who inspired him to join the military at the age of 18.
He chose the Marine Corps and reported to boot camp in San Diego, California, less than two weeks after graduating from high school. “I wanted to go to the best that there is out there,” he says of the Marines. “You’ve got the Navy SEALS, you’ve got Delta Force and all of them, but as a military organization, there’s nothing like the Marine Corps. They’re the greatest fighting force on the face of this earth.”
His 12 years in the Marine Corps included a Barracks Duty stint in the Philippines, an attachment with the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, and assignment to the Marine Cadre program as an Anti-Counter-Terrorism instructor. His last six years in the Corps were spent in Intelligence specializing in Interrogation translation, for which he attended language school and learned to read and write Persian Farsi.
What interested him about the intelligence and counter-terrorism fields? “I think just the challenge of being the best that I can be, in whatever I could do,” he says. “I love shooting. It’s one thing I’ve always been very good at. I joined the Marine Corps infantry, because I couldn’t imagine joining a military service and not being a gunfighter. And if I’m going to be a gunfighter, I might as well be the best gunfighter there is, and that’s those guys that are doing counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism, that kind of thing. As an interrogator translator, I liked the idea of being able to … get the enemy to commit treason against their country.”
Aiming to ‘Get Back Into the War’
The prospect of long overseas deployments, however, eventually put a strain on Geist’s family life—“I didn’t want to be that absentee father,” he says—so in the mid-1990s he was honorably discharged from the Corps and became a deputy sheriff in Teller County, Colorado, west of Colorado Springs. Because of his interrogation background, he was assigned as a liaison with the Vice Narcotics and Intelligence Unit in Colorado Springs. He also served as an interviewer and investigator with Crimes Against Children and Crimes Against Families, helping secure convictions in a number of child-abuse cases.
Later, Geist became the police chief in Fowler, Colorado, a “Mayberry-like” farming and ranching community situated between Pueblo and Rocky Ford. He left that position after three years to start his own business doing private investigations as well as bounty hunting and writing bail bonds. While that could be “fun,” Geist says, “it’s one of those businesses where some months are diamonds and some months are coal, and usually there were more coal months than diamond months. “It’s a cutthroat business,” he goes on. “I was content with it, but it wasn’t exactly who I was. I think it changed when [9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq] kicked off. I started looking at how I could get back into the war.”
In 2004, Geist started doing contract security work in Iraq for Triple Canopy, a private company that had been founded a year earlier by Army Special Forces veterans. His first assignment was doing personal-protection details for the U.S. State Department in Baqubah, Iraq, northeast of Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle.
Over nearly a decade, Geist (or “Oz,” short for his broadcast call sign, the “Wizard of Oz”) would have more than 20 deployments as a private contractor, each lasting about three to five months. While private security workers can be paid well—“anywhere from probably $500 to $1,000 a day,” he says—they’re also required to pay their own expenses like insurance and air travel.
The use of private military contractors has grown exponentially in the U.S. over the years, but especially since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Private contractors have been part of every war that has ever been fought in America,” Geist explains. “If you go back to the Revolutionary War, General Washington hired a couple of different people—a French individual and I think a German individual—to train a lot of the troops for him.”
A Helping Hand for Contractors’ Families
Geist’s role in the Benghazi battle came in his capacity as a contractor with Global Response Staff, which has recruited hundreds of retired special military operators over the years to protect CIA personnel worldwide. While the use of private military contractors has drawn its share of criticism (check out the controversy over the company formerly known as Blackwater, for example) Geist contends that private security contractors have been unfairly tarnished because people don’t understand the role they play.
“The private security contractors are doing jobs that normally would be done by the military,” he says. “So they free up our war fighters from having to do the protection details, so they can be the ones out there fighting the battles. And, as private security contractors—a lot of us are veterans—we have the chance to utilize the skills, experience, and expertise we’ve gained over the years to also help protect Americans.”
Since 9/11, Geist adds, it’s estimated that more than 5,000 private contractors have been killed overseas, and about 30,000 have been injured. It’s a big reason he and his wife, Krystal, founded a nonprofit charitable foundation called the Shadow Warriors Project, whose focus is supporting private security contractors and their families. In contrast to U.S. military veterans, Geist says, “private security contractors are really left behind,” without medical insurance beyond workmen’s comp, or any other post-engagement support. The foundation’s latest initiative, a partnership with a dog-breeding and training business called Baden K-9, seeks to match disabled private security contractors and veterans with highly trained service dogs.
In addition to his work with the Shadow Warriors Project, Geist currently is a consultant for various law-enforcement agencies and does public speaking on topics including his Christian faith, patriotism, leadership, and overcoming adversity. So, what’s down the road? “My future is whatever the Lord wants it to be. He’s going to open doors for me, and He continues to do that,” Geist says. “I’ve got to help other people, because selfless service is just my makeup. That’s what I’ve done my whole life and that’s how I’m doing it now through the nonprofit—helping those guys that are overseas fighting to protect our freedoms and making sure that this country stays free.”