Hired Gun: From Lakewood to Baghdad, the Evolution of Stony Smith 

"I'm in Baghdad. I protect Department of State personnel. More often than not they are involved in some aspect of rebuilding Iraq. I wear and carry about 40 pounds of body armor, weapons (carbine and pistol) and ammunition. I work as part of a team. It's in the high 90s here, but it's a dry heat. I miss my mom, my dog and my friends. My contract is over in early May. I may or may not continue this once I complete this contract. I do think the surge is having an effect. I think certain elements of the Army have kicked the living crap out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The news media by and large are a bunch of lying scumbags who have no qualms about making a mockery of the First Amendment in order to further their own agenda. I am not a mercenary.

For those of you who want to know more, continue reading."

-- Oct. 20, 2007, the Iraq Updates of Stony Smith

***

The rocket smashes into the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad at some 200 meters per second — KA-WHAM! — and Stony Smith drops to the floor. He sharpens his senses and waits for more fire. These things usually come in threes.

Insurgents have been hammering the whole goddam Green Zone for months. But now, on Jan. 29, 2005, just days prior to a major national election, it's the first time any round from the constant bombardment outside the embassy's walls hit its mark. Stony doesn't hear any more rockets heading his way. Nearby, two Americans lay dying. The warhead burrows deep into this imposing former palace of Saddam Hussein, but it never goes off.

Within seconds, Stony is up and running into the next room to secure his client, and this guy is leaning back in his chair, phone cocked in the crook of his shoulder, chatting away and suddenly looking up at Stony, like, "What's the matter?" The rocket! The smoke! Didn't you hear? A gray cloud is slowly wending through the hallways, fine and hazy. Debris rains down around the room. Stony has this determined look in his eyes and urges the man out of the office.

Here's the thing: Stony Smith doesn't fuck around. He doesn't cut corners. And he certainly doesn't tolerate anything less than achieving the stated objectives, especially as the threat of imminent death stinks up the room. The sole mission is to protect this guy, this director of a major reconstruction office in central Iraq who's now grabbing his bullet-proof gear off a nearby coat rack with all due holy-shit haste.

As the U.S. volleys toward its own zenith of involvement in Iraq, there are hundreds of people working here at the embassy; Lakewood's own Stony Smith is but one of them. He's under contract with Aegis, one of countless security companies worldwide working to protect personnel and cargo overseas, often in conflict zones. He's doing just that right now, faculties heightened as he escorts the client into the basement of the embassy, where the Marine Corps' anti-terrorist Fast Company is based. That's the designated safe room, and, thank ye heavens, Stony and his partner get their principal safe and sound down there.

The grace of a near-death experience doesn't really faze Stony. This is his job, and he's already mulled over the possibility of dying on the clock. He's knee-deep in Baghdad, you know, and packing heat, so the situation is pretty clear. He's probably not openly thinking about this right now, but Stony has taken up the ancient samurai mantle that we are all born dead. The whole sum of this brief scuttle across Earth is indebted to service and loyalty to a greater cause. This work of his, this tip of the hat to something altogether grander, is why he is spending his arc into middle age living in Iraq and not building a more traditional life in, say, the sunny suburbs of Cleveland.

The embassy attack is memorialized in writing by Stony as "A Close Call," a particularly jumpy literary value on the Richter scale of his years in Iraq. Nine months before the close call, Stony Smith was sitting in Lakewood and penning an email to dozens of friends and family members. That letter, the first in a seven-year string of correspondence, begins: "I'm sure some of you think I've lost my mind."

***

It's muggy as all hell and the sort of hot that Clevelanders bemoan as downright intolerable, but June in Northeast Ohio is a far cry from Baghdad.

Stony thumps a thickly bound stack of papers onto the table: "The Iraq Updates of Stony Smith." This book is the sum of his epistolary reflections from his time in Iraq. And the prose, engaging and creative, really does lend the whole thing a book-like feel. This email canon served as a diary for friends and family, explaining the realities of life in Iraq with his personal and often humorous touch (like opening up vivid descriptions of IED encounters in Sadr City with "this installment of 'Infidel Gringo Caveman in Iraq'..."). News media certainly couldn't be trusted with developments overseas; that kind of stuff fell to those who were living it. And Stony, through this dramatic plot twist of life, was right in the middle of the storm.

He slides his shades back onto a crown of short, white plumage and casts a smile through his tightly cropped goatee. He is tall, 54, bedecked in patterned button-down shirt, khaki shorts and Chuck Taylors. There is always a ballpoint pen clipped to the top of his shirt. Now and then, he'll sketch an idea onto a napkin, more often than not in between wild gesticulations. He skis across tangents in conversation like a pro. "This is for you," he says, nodding at the book. His voice has a light and eager rasp to it.  

The subject line of the first email reads: "Major Life Change." That was April 13, 2004, just a year after the U.S. first invaded Iraq. In the message, Stony details this change, this new job working protective services with some upstart company in Iraq called Custer Battles. He will go on, let's just say, to find momentary disillusionment and end up leaving their amateur operation by the end of the summer, and Custer Battles will go on to be found guilty of defrauding the U.S. by inflating invoices by millions of dollars, but en route to Baghdad in April 2004 the skies are blue and optimistic for Stony. A major life change, indeed.

Things were going to be very different from here on out. Questions abounded from all corners. Had Stony lost his mind? What, precisely, does this job entail? ...Iraq? Freakin' really?

This guy was in finance, for crissakes, a homeowner.

For years, Stony had been ascending the great corporate ladder at the Cleveland office of a major financial firm. He was doing great — scoring big wins with his analyses of ETFs vs. mutual funds. That kind of thing. He was good. But...

"I wasn't fulfilled," he says, tipping back a cider beneath this scorching sun. He couldn't muster up verve for the future life of an investment banker. He possessed aspirations of something bigger.

As things happen, a hunting partner out in Alaska — career Special Forces, let's be clear — shoots Stony an email one day. This is a turning point, in hindsight. This was back when security startups were sprouting like gangly weeds and all vying for big-bucks overseas State Department contracts. The Iraq invasion spurred the classic wild, wild west mentality, and suddenly former military credentials were in exceedingly high demand at home and abroad. Stony served in the Army in the 1980s. West Point grad. Helluva shot with a carbine.

The slippery notion enticed Stony. Iraq, huh? He had spent eight years in a peacetime Army, including time as a rifle platoon leader, never catching the sort of action he had imagined when enlisting. He remembers this blazing moment, soon after discharge, when he was driving up to Oregon to meet his first post-military employers. News of the Panama invasion seared through his car radio.

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