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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.

"Folks may not understand," he asserts with arched eyebrows. "Like, 'What do you mean you missed out?' Well, you don't become an infantry guy or an airborne ranger just to sit behind a desk. You're the type of guy who leans forward — what we call 'leaning forward in the foxhole.'"

Stony leans forward in the foxhole. And while this security gig in Iraq didn't quite resemble his time in the military, well, it posed an angle of service that reeled him in for the long haul. It certainly wasn't the same sort of Morningstar tripe he had been dealing with lately. And you gotta remember, among certain corners of the militarized world in the early 2000s, there was this titanic sense that democracy could flourish in our perception of the Middle East.

He kind of chuckles a bit when he talks about it today, this idea of supplanting centuries-old ethnic conflicts with a republic. The grandness of it all. But here's the other thing about Stony Smith: He's a dreamer.

***

“Imagine every time you get into your car spending 5-15 minutes to inspect your car for IEDs (improvised explosive devices, or booby traps to the rest of the world). You wear body armor and have a loaded weapon in your hands. You have an assigned sector to watch. A car coming up fast on your tail is a potential threat. This isn’t a once-in-a-while event. It happens each and every time you get into your vehicle and go out into the streets. This is my world, folks, and it causes me to look at things differently.

Have you shifted paradigms yet? If not, that’s okay. Now for some anecdotes.”

***

All of the sudden in 2004, this one-time sales wiz is talking about "the bad guys," whose numbers are legion and faceless. He's living in something called "the Red Zone." He's discussing the possibility of death.

The thunderous backdrop wasn't lost amid Stony's conversational emails, though; the ramifications of life on the ground over there were of course deadly serious. Readers would float questions about whether Stony would, like, go out to dinner after work or whether there were any sort of sightseeing aspects to his journey. (He didn't, and, no, there weren't.) But that sort of curiosity was kind of the point behind Stony's emails. Seriously, what's it like over there? Life in war-torn Baghdad is incomprehensible for people tucked neatly into Western routines. Even for Stony back then, getting by in a conflict zone was light-years away from his recent life as a financial adviser. But he had come here for a reason.

Early in his assignment that summer, Stony is overseeing a motorcade en route to a series of hospitals around Sadr City. Pretty boilerplate. But the mission reeked of real danger from the get-go.

Mortar fire punctuates the duration of the trip. Bad guys loom. Sadr City had featured the rat-a-tat of artillery fire for months, drawing well into the summer of 2004. Stony estimates that more than 900 of these bad guys had been killed during a particularly bloody May. This was where the heaviest fighting was going down, and Stony was the security manager for a hot trip deep into the trenches.

KA-WOOM! "Shit!" An IED blast rips through the motorcade. Little more than minor injuries are reported — though one guy snags a metal fragment in his wrist — and everyone realizes that they're traveling to a hospital anyway. But the mood is overly tense now. It's pretty clear that the nearby police officers were well aware that an IED was lying in wait. Welcome to Sadr City.

Stony is on his game, though, and the clients arrive safely at their hospital meeting points. But, listen, there's a secondary edge to Stony's work in Iraq: what he dubs a "hearts and minds campaign." Here he is, ducking bullets and straddling Hell On Earth, all decked out in body armor and chest harness, and then this cute, little Iraqi girl comes meandering up to him. She offers him flowers. Right in the middle of the bleakest spot in the galaxy. She offers him fruit. Stony tosses a flower in his cap and shares the fruit with the gathering crowd of locals.

The damnedest things happen in Iraq, looking back on it all. Stony's got a million of these kinds of stories. But — skip over the geography for a minute, here — it's more aptly the case that the damnedest, most eye-opening moments in life strike us only when you make choices like that. When you set the dominos just right and then, with a deep breath, actually make the effort to knock 'em down. The universe reveals a bit of itself when we're totally mindful. Stony had traveled more than 6,000 miles to find himself. Along the way, he got flowers and fruit.

Wouldn't have happened behind a desk with a sheaf of mutual fund forecasts staring him down.

Elsewhere in Sadr City, while the flowers were trading hands from little girl to infidel gringo caveman, 1st Cavalry Division troops were throwing down a far bloodier version of individualization. "These guys are slugging it out with the bad guys on a day-to-day basis and giving it their all," Stony says. "I saw the weariness in their eyes and faces. I heard the frustration in their voices at being shot at by people that they came to liberate."

In an email a few years later, by which time Stony was working with the rather infamous Blackwater, he adds to that tangent: "I still believe that what we are trying to achieve is a noble cause. Sometimes I do wonder if we've bitten off more than we can chew and if there aren't insurmountable cultural issues."

***

“So take a year of living and thinking like that and combine it with looking at everyone you pass near while ‘on duty’ and looking at their hands to see what they’re doing with them, wondering which guy is going to be the asshole that tries to kill your client and combine it with the grind of wearing body armor 12-16 hours a day, a less than ideal (I’m being very generous here) management environment and a less than 10-percent semblance of a ‘normal’ life, and hopefully you can see why I’m looking forward to coming home and hugging my mom and my dog.”

***

Life most typically for Americans in Iraq is punctuated heavily by adrenaline and boredom. The days pass for military troops much in the way they do for cats like Stony, who's now totally done with Custer Battles and moving on to another company, one so hopefully less fraught with financial chicanery.

After months of radio silence from the lady back home -- and a vacation with her that only illuminated writing on the wall more fervently -- Stony moves on to Aegis, yet another one of the security upstarts in a field that is now slowly beginning to whittle down to a core. More changes within this major life change. He's walking back to his new living quarters in August 2004 as Iraq's men's soccer team beats Australia 1-0 in the Summer Olympics quarterfinals. "They celebrate by shooting their AKs in the air," Stony says, drawing back resignedly to the celebrations in Baghdad that night, "and what folks don't understand is that the laws of physics apply no matter where in the world you are." What goes up must come down, of course. And Stony was sick of shit coming down on him.

He's in the Green Zone and he's seeing tracers - chemical compounds igniting off the bases of the rounds - arcing across the sky. For a moment Stony is back in his youth, playing outfield in Little League and watching a fly ball careen across summertime sky and head right for him, but right now Stony does not have a baseball mitt or anything, and he's suddenly back in Iraq and freaking out. The bullet veers right by his ear. He braces for more errant fire.

And thus he slams headlong into something of a nadir rather early in his time in Iraq. The bullet nearly striking his head just sort of tops the bleakness with a twist of irony.

Such were the risks that Stony had already considered -- the bullets, at least, if not the intangible relationship hazards. Military personnel and private employees living in Baghdad faced the prospect of fly-by bullets daily. "Every day I woke up in Iraq, I knew there was someone somewhere who wanted to kill me," he says. That was the trip.

His paranoia grows and his emails become more eschatological as time wears on. Surely there will be an end to all of this, but what sort of end?

At its height, the American effort in Iraq would see 165,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 30,000 contractors working across the desert nation. Employees working on contracts with the U.S. were a major phenomenon as the action in Iraq heated up. This sort of work blossomed in earnest after the fall of the Soviet Union, as economies blended around the world and government-backed militaries found themselves stretched more thinly. The ongoing War on Terror, an amorphous bastard of international conflict, had widened the niche for the private work of companies like the more infamous Blackwater (now known as Constellis Holdings), for whom Stony would be working within the year.

All that effort, we're seeing now, has landed Iraq back at the nationalist drawing board. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has found strength in the vacuum of hegemony left by the U.S. The prospect of fresh national borders hangs fairly brightly in the air. There's a sense here, domestically, that the past decade had shed so much blood in vain. Hell, most Iraqis who find themselves in ISIS-controlled cities are more optimistic than they were in the past, according to journalistic reports.

"I'm not surprised. The only surprise is that it didn't happen sooner," Stony says of ISIS's march across Iraq. There is, of course, the thought that the U.S. never should have left (at least once it had invaded in the first place), never should have opened that gap for something else to move in, he adds. But as news of the changes in Iraq trickles into the U.S., the misunderstanding of Shia-Sunni relations is further illuminated. Iraq is a nation of borders drawn by foreigners, pitting antagonistic ethnic groups up against one another in cramped quarters. A republic just might not fit.

At issue to some degree and in hindsight when Stony talks about this is the legacy of American involvement in Iraq. As ISIS begins to snatch up territory across the country, many in the U.S. wonder what net-positive effects, if any, came from the past decade.

It'd be hard to say. The U.S. yanked itself out of Iraq almost three years ago now. Since then, Iraq has drifted off our national radar and begun to once again fold inward on itself.

Stony's own work in Iraq began to run him down a bit -- the isolation, the violence -- but he kept his eyes fixed on a noble cause for seven years. That's what Stony does. He'd remind himself now and then that at least working geographic logistics in Baghdad trumped the blasé life of a banker.

***

“I will confess that I am extremely ready to come home. It probably won’t be for good, but this whole thing is starting to wear on me. I’m tired of looking at every car that we pass or that passes us and wondering if that will be the one to blow up, and, if so, what will that be like? Will it be over in a flash or will I survive the initial blast? Will there be a follow-on attack by the bad guys, and will I physically be able to fight back?...

I’ve firmly grasped the concept that I’m going to die at some point in time. It’s pretty much impossible to live in denial of that while I’m here. The big question for me is how is it going to happen? Will it be while I’m here or years from now while I’m back in the States? The ‘I get killed here’ option is the one that concerns me.”

***

"What are you gonna do?" The voice comes through the phone with an odd sense of urgency and the question doesn't make much sense to Stony. He is taking it easy at a motel in Southeast Ohio; he had been shooting on vacation with mentor Ken Hackathorn over the weekend and decided to crash somewhere rather than haul ass back to Cleveland.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, what are you gonna do for a job?"

"What are you talking about?"

"They're kicking Blackwater out of Iraq."

"Whaat?" Stony flips on the TV and eventually tracks down Blackwater news on the headline crawl: Shooting in Nisour Square, et cetera, et cetera. It was bad. 17 civilians shot dead in Baghdad.

Stony had been with the company for a few years by now, including a brief stint in post-Katrina New Orleans. They had people all over the place, and Stony soon picked up more work in Baghdad. But in 2007, as the U.S. military reached something of an apex in effort and despite a mounting litany of human rights abuses over the years, nothing portended news like this.

Blackwater was cultivating a $1-billion contract with the U.S. Department of State and would later morph into the evil face of private security work in Iraq. The Nisour Square massacre is often the immediate follow-up to mentions of private security contractors. Nationwide, it would seem, the phrase "private security contractor" calls to mind the sorts of mercenary attitudes seen in Nisour Square that day. They tend to go hand in hand these days, and Stony knows this -- but that was never the game he was playing. "I am not a mercenary," he says. It's one of the first sentences he utters as he tells his story. He distances himself from the men who fired their guns in the Square like that. But he knew men like them over in Iraq -- the sort of hot-headed ball busters that burn with just a little too much wicked vim and vigor. They're everywhere, really. War just breeds them more heavily.

The push and pull of the bad guys and the good guys consumes Stony's writings from Iraq. That dichotomy trickles into his conversation. Listen, Stony's an optimist, a dreamer. But he too grounds himself with pragmatism and wariness. Over beers in suburban Lakewood, he eyes everyone -- not with paranoia per se, but with curiosity. Observation is key.

The years following Nisour passed more slowly than he would have liked. Attitudes shifted both dramatically and subtly -- some argued there was less "fun" in the air. Stony says he just slipped into a simpler existence. Protocol changed to accommodate that flash of zealous fire back in Nisour Square. "We are no longer to shoot a car to disable it," he reported at one point, for instance. Time spans between email updates grew. Often, he would just check in to confirm that he was alive and healthy. No more "close calls."

When the U.S. finally pulled out of Iraq at the tail end of 2011, Stony had already been gone for half a year. Both countries had changed, but more apparently he had changed. The great balance sheet of life had evened out a bit. With the right eyes, he just looked more like good ol' Stony than ever before.

***

“For the record, I think that our involvement here was with the right intentions and for the right reasons, although some of those reasons were based upon flawed data. Take a look through world history and find a country that was the single most powerful nation for its time. I think you’ll find that country always used its power to conquer other nations, subjugate them and tax/use that conquered country to bolster its wealth.

Now look at us as a nation. We did ‘conquer’ a nation, but to oust a dictator and help that country form a representative government. We’ve shed our blood trying to improve the lot in life for a whole nation. I think that whole aspect of this has been lost upon us.”

***

Stony Smith is not from a classic military family. His father, an insurance agent who died while Stony was working in post-Katrina New Orleans, brought him and a handful of his work clients out into the country to shoot off some old guns they were holding while Stony's grandfather went through a divorce. Felt good. There's nothing like that BOOM flying off your grip. Stony was just a kid.

"I don't know if that's when my dad got bit by the bug, but he did and then I did too," he says in recollection. Like most youngins, Stony bore out a sense of earnest curiosity about how mechanical things worked. Firearms, of course, later in life intrigued him greatly. "I wanted to know how stuff works, you know, what's going on in there." No doubt he can rattle off the finer points of a gun on the spot. He himself is mechanical when shooting.

We pull into what passes for a parking lot outside B&T Shooting Supplies in Lorain on another hot June morning. The place looks like the log cabin on a label of maple syrup. The sign reads: "INDOOR RANGE / GUN SHOP." Stony shoots here now and then. It's a fine place.

He wants people to learn. That's his mission now, a few years after Iraq, and he drops firearms aphorisms like a poet: "Don't confuse ballistic masturbation with effective training." In instruction, he applies the same dedication to The Truth that he does with, say, a rocket attack in the Green Zone. He's a teacher. After a crash course in Stony methodology at the range, I'm nailing Xs with damning accuracy.

Deriving equal parts philosophy and brawn from the likes of Larry Vickers and Ken Hackathorn (the latter is the "the tactical Dalai Lama," Stony says; the two of them are prominent in the firearms training community), Stony has brought the work of Iraq back home. Toward the end of his time in Iraq he created Paragon 6, a security and firearms instruction company (basic and applied pistol/carbine courses, etc., more for the corporate world than the governmental scene).

"You and I and everybody, when we went to school we all had teachers that we remember, that had an effect on us with their abilities that we will remember for the rest of our lives," Hackathorn says. "Same thing goes with shooting instructors. Only a few have that ability to impart what is necessary. They stand out. They're the ones you remember. And by the way, those are the ones people tend to seek out." Hackathorn has known Stony for years and, after countless rounds fired off together, he decided to bring Stony on as an assistant instructor. The guy from Northeast Ohio had certainly proven himself worthy.

When Stony talks about firearms, he does so with enthusiasm, yes, but he also intones cautiously. He's wary of the du jour gun control discourse in the national media. He doesn't fall into the umbrella gun nut category. Marksmanship, manipulation, mindset: Stony holds true to a triad of firearms fundamentals, nothing more, nothing less.

"I don't teach just target-shooting. Yeah, the paper's our target and that's what we're putting holes in, but that's not the end goal," he says over a post-shooting burger back in Lakewood. "The end goal's not to kill people, the end goal is if someone needs to defend themselves they can do so effectively."

Stony Smith uses the word "effectively" quite often in conversation. He doesn't cut corners.

"He's a motivated guy, very articulate," Hackathorn says. "He's good at what he does. And it's not for the faint of heart.

***

“I figured it out the other day, and I have seven years here. I first arrived in April ‘04. I’ve seen a lot of changes here. Some for the better, some for the worse. Overall, I’m glad I came here. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed to reinvent myself. By coming here and doing the things I’ve done over these years, I’m truer to who and what I am, not who I thought I should be in others’ eyes.”

***

In May 2011, Stony dashes off one last missive from Iraq, just a few months before the official U.S. troops pullout date. "I realize it's literally been years since my last update," he begins.

"My Last Report from Baghdad (Hopefully)" culls together a brief reflection on the previous seven years and a heartfelt look toward the future. He doesn't leave with the sort of philosophical meanderings one might have expected. He doesn't drop even a hint of the mortar fire, the embassy attack, the flowers in Sadr City. He simply punches out and doffs his cap to the quirky pulse of the universe.

"The irony of it is I'm probably more scared about doing this than I was about coming here," he writes. "Getting killed here was one thing, but the prospect of failing at this endeavor is even more daunting." Stony is writing about his look toward more white-collar work now, maybe something domestic. Of course, he'll spend 2013 jetting off to Cameroon to oversee transportation for a major oil drilling company. Even today, he's scanning the global horizon for other security opportunities.

In between dreams, he's got a handful of local haunts where you just might catch him mid-sunset, possibly working over a cider and talking shop with a roster of friends and fellow believers.

A shade more than 10 years ago, Stony was looking across this vast expanse of life. Iraq loomed. He took stock of his surroundings and, feeling a need for something more, floored it into the future.

"The thing that mattered wasn't staying alive, but how you conducted yourself and how you died," he had said at one point, riffing on the old samurai angle again.

The way he tells all of his stories, it's as though they're unfolding in the present. And they are. He's at work now in the embassy; the client is next door. A purple Baghdad sun is setting off to the west. Stony figures he's got a little bit of time to check his email, maybe fire off an anecdote or two to friends back home.

Then a rocket is shot into the palace, and Stony hits the deck.

More by Eric Sandy

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