They survived Benghazi only to become unwitting players in a never-ending scandal. If they have to fight, they’ll fight. But this time it’s to protect their own.
The plan was to make jack-o’-lanterns. John Tiegen and Mark Geist have brought their families out here, to the scraggly wilds of Tiegen’s 40-acre Colorado property, so the kids can carve pumpkins while the men hunt small game. But the guns prove more appealing to everyone, so the plans converge. “Cover your ears, guys,” Tiegen says as he slaps a 14-round magazine into his NEMO Watchman, the Ferrari of semiautomatic precision rifles. To his right, Geist stares through the scope of his custom AR-15. Then they light up the pumpkins. Orange guts explode. The kids cheer. The men move on to the animals.
“Want me to skin that?” Geist asks, pointing to a rabbit with a bullet in its head. Geist’s family settled on the eastern plains more than 100 years ago. He grew up the way kids here always have, with guns and horses and Wild West lore. He can tell the time using nothing but the horizon and his fist. Point to a random tree or cactus and he knows its name. He, like Tiegen, is a man of self-reliance. And so he places the carcass on the ground, kneels over it, and pulls back the sleeves of his camouflaged jacket. His left forearm is a map of scars. He’s always been proficient with a knife, but these days, his thumb doesn’t flex naturally; he has to compensate, clamping the knife hilt between his fingers and his palm. “I used to be faster at this,” he mutters.
The black memorial bracelet on his wrist flashes in the sun. Tiegen wears one, too. It reads: TYRONE “RONE” WOODS, GLEN “BUB” DOHERTY/LIBYA 9-12-12.
Two of the dead in Benghazi.
On September 11, 2012, militants stormed the U.S. consulate in Libya’s second city and killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Of the five armed guards who saved more than 25 lives that night, three have publicly stepped forward: Tiegen and Geist, who live near each other in rural Colorado, and Kris Paronto, who’s in Omaha. (The other two have been identified only by pseudonyms, Jack Silva and Dave Benton.) If you want to know what actually happened in Benghazi, go read something else. The worst night of their lives has already been rehashed ad nauseam, and there are a million contradicting versions to choose from.
The real story of these men—their lives before that night, and their lives after—is far more complex than any conspiracy theory. And now that Benghazi has gone from personal tragedy to national drama, they struggle with how to maintain control of their own stories.
Some tried returning to the battlefield. “I told my son that I was thinking about going back to fight bad guys, and he just about lost it,” Paronto says. He has three kids - an 11-year-old boy, an eight-year-old girl, and a newborn. They grew up with a dad who went off to work in dangerous places and always came home - each time a little rougher around the edges, yes, but all in one piece. Then, after Benghazi, he took a job in Yemen. He’s a professional gunslinger; what else was he going to do? “My little girl, she never used to cry when I left - but when I left to go to Yemen, she cried and cried.”
But after going public with their story, that wasn’t an option anyway. The men were ostracized by the CIA and the State Department. No hero’s welcome or ticker-tape parades on their behalf. That’s because they were not soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines. They were private security contractors—a distinction that means very little when bad guys are pointing guns at you, but turns out to mean a lot when you’re back home in America, having just shed blood in the name of your country. They now feel abandoned and disillusioned, and so they’ve retreated to what they know—their land, their families, each other—while they figure out what’s next.
Later in the day, the rabbit skinned and gutted, we hop into Geist’s Z71 4x4 truck. He pulls out his phone, the same one he was carrying when the French 81-mm mortars hit, and shows me a picture of his friend’s gravesite in California. It belongs to one of the men killed by his side in Benghazi. The words FIERCE PATRIOT are engraved on the headstone. Geist turns on the stereo.
“Ever heard this?” he asks. It’s Radney Foster’s “Angel Flight,” an ode to pilots who fly fallen soldiers home. All I ever wanted to do was fly, the song begins, and Geist eases up the volume. Geist is quiet and direct, dressed head to toe in camouflage. But as we drive past cornfields and grain silos, he begins singing along. Come on brother, I’m taking you home. It’s not a performance; it’s like a man speaking the truest words he knows. He finishes the whole song.
What were they even doing in Benghazi? They were just working the next job, in what seemed like a never-ending series of opportunities for men with military experience who preferred to make a living outside the military. All three were reared on God and country in rural Colorado,and each entered the service right out of high school. The grandson of a decorated WWII veteran, Geist saw the Marines as the obvious continuation of a childhood spent hunting, shooting, and being outdoors. “I didn’t see much point in college,” he says. For Tiegen, the Corps was the only perceivable gateway out of town. He spent nearly every day after school hanging out at the local recruitment office until he was old enough to join. Paronto, who played wide receiver at Colorado Mesa University, was preparing to try out for the Broncos when an Army recruiter spotted him in a crowd. “I think he saw sucker written on my forehead,” he says. “He showed me this video of Rangers jumping out of helicopters, and I said, ‘Sign me up!’”
By 2003, the year the U.S. invaded Iraq, all three had completed their military service and were back home. Geist had become a bounty hunter, after a brief stint as his hometown’s police chief. Tiegen was a heating and air-conditioning technician. And Paronto was fresh out of the Army, discharged on medical grounds after doctors diagnosed him with Crohn’s disease. None had seen combat during their service, and all missed the military lifestyle and camaraderie.
The military prohibits soldiers from pulling back-to-back deployments. But there’s another option for people who prefer to make their living in war zones: private security contracting, which provides steadier work and better pay than Uncle Sam. There are plenty of these jobs to go around, as the U.S. increasingly outsources to companies like AirScan and DynCorp, turning military contracting into a multibilliondollar industry. Tiegen, Geist, and Paronto quickly fell in love with the job; back then, in the early days of George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” coalition forces were scrambling to establish a foothold in the Middle East and private firms were free to operate on the battlefield with little oversight. “It was like the Wild West,” says Geist of his first contracting gig in Iraq with Triple Canopy, in 2004.
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