‘Our Constitution is worth defending’
US Marine Corps veteran Thompson reflects on career
CLARION — As a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, Mark Thompson led Marines in refugee operations during the Mariel boat lift out of Cuba in 1980.
At the time, he didn’t realize the long-lasting impact those operations would have on the lives of thousands.
“My experience with Cuban refugees got more rewarding as time went by,” Thompson said.
For the mission, Thompson was sent to Key West — Florida’s southernmost point. There his team was responsible for keeping the peace and screening refugees as they came to shore. Thompson was part of the Weapons Company 1st Battalion, 8th Marines out of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The Mariel boat lift was a mass emigration of Cubans, who traveled from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor to the U.S. between April and October of 1980.
The refugees had been out at sea for days — often badly sunburned, malnourished and exhuasted.
“Many were in bad shape,” Thompson recalled. “Women, children, elderly people got in boats you wouldn’t go bass fishing in and went 90 miles in them.”
Thompson’s first day involved going to a compound to make sure there wasn’t any violence.
“The initial intent of (Fidel) Castro (former Cuban dictator) was to mess with the U.S. government,” Thompson said. “So he decided I’ll empty my jails and tell them if they want to be free, they have to go to Florida.
“Initially the influx was some very unsavory people, but then again Castro would put people in jail who were perfectly reasonable, they just didn’t agree with him.”
One image that sticks in his mind from his time in Florida was helping an elderly woman into an aircraft.
“Carrying an 87-year-old woman up in an airplane in Key West,” Thompson said. “She was so frail. I carried her up in the plane. I don’t think my grandmother ever would have done this.”
For about 30 days, from early May to early June of that year, Thompson was part of the screening process for Cubans entering the country.
“Word got around that traveling in a shrimp boat, worse than cattle were treated, wasn’t optimal,” Thompson said. “But these were desperate people who really wanted freedom.”
Thompson would go on to have a decorated military and government career. He led Marines in every division around the world, trained extensively in special operations and conducted counterdrug operations in Colombia.
In 2007, he was reminded of the work he and his fellow Marines did in 1980.
“I met a man at a conference I was speaking at and just in passing, I said the first time I was in Florida, I was in Key West,” Thompson said. “And he told me ‘I was one of those refugees.’ He explained that his mom got a job being a maid, his dad found work in construction. They all became U.S. citizens. He enlisted in the Army and was a retired warrant officer.
“I was blown away that one of those thousands of people we helped really gave back to the U.S. in a very good way.”
Thompson retired from the military in 1998. He achieved the rank of major.
He described the decision to enter the military as “more subliminal than direct.”
“My father, both my brothers and all my uncles had served respectively in World War II, Korea or Vietnam,” Thompson said. “So it wasn’t like someone said go in the military, nobody ever told me that. I wanted to have a challenge. I decided as early as the eighth grade I wanted to do that.”
Thompson, who was born on a farm two miles northwest of Eagle Grove, initially wanted to become a fighter pilot. He trained in the Air Force Academy where he earned two years worth of credits. He ended up finishing a degree at Buena Vista University. While there, he went to Marine Corps Candidate School.
He was commissioned in 1977 and started active duty in 1978.
Thompson also worked in counterterrorism for the U.S. government. He was a key member of the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST).
His career highlights include:
• 1998: deployed as the operations officer on the FEST in the aftermath of the Nairobi, Kenya, embassy bombing, coordinating recovery efforts.
• 2000: deployed as the operations officer on the FEST in the aftermath of the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen.
• 2001: led the FEST to Quito, Ecuador, to safely recover U.S. and foreign hostages.
• 2002: Led the FEST to the Philippines to safely recover U.S. missionaries.
• 2004: Led Department of State efforts to safely extract President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from war-torn Haiti without loss of life.
• 2004: Deployed to Iraq to establish a hostage coordination cell, resulting in the safe recovery of numerous U.S. and foreign citizens.
• 2006: Led the FEST to Lagos, Nigeria, to safely recover U.S. and foreign hostages.
• 2006: Collaborated with Fox News on behalf of the Department of State, and led efforts to safely recover reporter Steve Centanni from hostage takers in the Gaza Strip.
• 2009: Deployed overseas to lead FEST mission still classified.
When not deployed, Thompson discreetly coordinated some of the most sensitive counterterrorism activities around the world.
Since his departure from the Department of State, he has returned to Iowa.
He’s been asked to speak at various venues, including a 9/11 commemoration, Veterans Day events and most recently to a statewide law enforcement conference.
In August 2017, he joined USAID in the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. He currently holds a TS security clearance.
Thompson said he always wanted to do something bigger than just earning a paycheck.
“I always wanted to challenge myself and do something that was more important than just a paycheck and it wasn’t like I went to the poor house or anything,” he said “There’s that phrase, ‘If you enjoy what you do you never work a day in your life.’ I won’t go that far, but I believed in what I was doing and I was part of team building.”
One of the hardest jobs Thompson was tasked with during his military career was taking casualty calls.
“The Marine Corps takes casualty calls about as seriously as anybody on the planet,” Thompson said. “You are responsible for walking up to the door to complete strangers and having the capability of telling them their Marine passed away and the conditions and circumstances and all of that.
“That was the most heartbreaking and at the same time was very honored to do it and the way we did it. The Marines do take care of their own.”
Thompson has visited about 60 different countries for the military or government work. His experiences have left him with the belief that what the U.S. has is worth fighting for.
“We take an oath to defend the Constitution and our Constitution is worth defending,” he said.