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

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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.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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