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

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"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.

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