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.