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Between bursts of machine gun and AK-47 fire, Mark “Oz” Geist and Tyrone Woods talked about their children. Geist’s daughter was seven months old, and Woods’ third son had been born shortly before his deployment to Libya, Geist said.
“We’re talking about our kids and the next thing you know, you’re getting attacked again almost simultaneously,” he told Fox News, smiling wryly at the memory.
The Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia attacked the U.S. diplomatic outpost and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Department of State employee Sean Smith and CIA contractors and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Woods were killed in the assault.
The attackers stormed the U.S. consulate and started shooting around 9:40 p.m. About a mile away, members of the CIA annex security team heard the gunfire. Several members later testified that their chief of base ordered them to wait before responding.
“We just reached a point where we decided to leave on our own,” one unidentified team member said, according to a 2016 report from the congressional Benghazi committee.
Geist and a CIA officer were at a dinner meeting when the attack started, but Woods soon called them back to the annex, warning them to not drive past the consulate, recalled Geist, who was serving as a CIA security contractor at the time.
Flames and smoke billowed from the consulate as Geist climbed on top of the annex roof, tasked with protecting the 20 or so Americans inside the CIA outpost. He heard gunfire and saw the bright glow of tracer rounds and rocket-propelled grenades flashing through the night sky.
He heard the State Department’s armored vehicle approach the annex before he saw it. The tires slapped against the pavement, drained of their air. Dozens of bullets had turned the windshield into a spiderweb of cracks. Geist’s teammates arrived next and set up a perimeter.
The attackers soon targeted the annex and the American security operators fought them off for hours without reinforcements.
“It was the right six there,” Geist, a Marine Corps veteran who started contracting after 9/11, said of his team. “We were all the right guys that should have been there.”
Doherty and his quick reaction force commandeered a plane in Tripoli and flew to Benghazi to aid the annex team. One of the many militias vying for control in Libya held the operators up at the airport, Geist said, resulting in an hours-long delay until they joined the fight.
Shortly after Doherty met Geist and Woods on the rooftop, the assailants launched another attack using mortars and small arms fire.
Geist opened up with his M4, emptied one magazine, and was reloading when he said the next mortar hit. As the debris and smoke settled, he raised his weapon to start shooting again, but couldn’t control his left hand. He looked down and saw his arm dangling at a 90-degree angle between his wrist and elbow.
He knew he had to get back in the fight.
“I’m going to do whatever I can and fight till my last breath,” he said.
The mortar attack killed Doherty and Woods. Then everything went quiet, Geist said.
“There’s no more gunfire, there’s no more mortars,” he said.
Ten years later, it’s still not clear what ended the battle of Benghazi.
“If they would have kept firing mortars, they would have killed me,” Geist said.
One security agent speculated in his congressional testimony that the sunrise had driven away the attackers. Geist told Fox News he reviewed drone footage and suspects the militia that transported Doherty’s team to the annex intervened.
“I look back on it and I call it the seventh man on our team,” he said.
Benghazi soon became a partisan political issue. Republicans accused then-President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of intentionally misleading the public by suggesting the attacks were a backlash against the film, “Innocence of Muslims.” Several years of congressional inquiries followed but the final report ultimately didn’t place all blame on any specific individual.
Geist said he feels Clinton and other high-ranking officials lack the “intestinal fortitude” to accept responsibility for security deficiencies and a slow response time.
Assets still were not on their way to Benghazi seven hours after the siege on the CIA annex was well underway, even though a surveillance drone had been flying overhead for much of the battle, according to the 2016 congressional report.
“The U.S. military never reached Benghazi,” the report states. “The only support unit that did arrive in Tripoli—the Marine ‘Fleet Anti-Terrorism Support Team’ or ‘FAST’ team—was anything but fast …. In fact, it did not take off until almost 12 hours after the attack ended.”
“We heard over the time after Benghazi that well, there was no assistance anywhere that could have got there in time,” Geist said. “You can get a lot of places in 13 hours. To say that was kind of heart-wrenching for us because we knew better.”
He says he doesn’t believe the U.S. government has learned from the mistakes made in Benghazi.
“People are making decisions and not listening to the guys and gals on the ground,” he said. “And that’s what they should be doing. You can’t fight a war from Washington, D.C.”
No one has been convicted of murder in connection with the four Americans’ deaths. However, two Libyan nationals were ultimately convicted of charges including conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists and maliciously destroying a dwelling.
In the days after the attacks, thousands of protesters marched in support of democracy and against militias. Some stormed Ansar al-Sharia’s headquarters, tearing down flags and setting fire to a car.
Libyan President Mohammed al-Magariaf ordered all non-government-sanctioned militias to disband and banned people from carrying weapons in public. But deadly clashes between rival militias continue to this day.
Geist quit contracting and he and his wife started the Shadow Warriors Project, a nonprofit that helps wounded contractors. They recently added a canine therapy program to the charity, pairing contractors or combat veterans with service dogs, he said.
“It has been cathartic and very helpful, being able to share and be a part of something bigger than yourself,” he said.
Geist feels the battle of Benghazi is often overshadowed by the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, but he still hopes the American public will honor the four men who lost their lives 10 years ago.
“Glen, Tyrone, Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, put their hand up in the air and swore to uphold the Constitution,” he said. “They chose to go into harm’s way. We have a lot of Americans around the world that are doing that, and we need to remember them as well.”