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Parachutist was a distinguished soldier

TAMPA — The Army colonel who died in a parachute accident this week was a career soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned the Bronze Star.

Beyond being a fighter, Col. James L. Merchant III also was an intellectual who puzzled out how to communicate advantageously with foreign enemies.

"It required much intellectual energy and rigor," said his friend and colleague at Special Operations Command, Col. John Leonard. Merchant succeeded with "his ability to think through some of the most difficult problems that we deal with in the command here."

Merchant, 46, was from South Carolina and joined the military in 1984 through a program at the Citadel, where he graduated. His career took him to Korea, Italy, Croatia, Qatar and the Air War College, which emphasizes use of air and space power in joint and multinational fighting.

He came to Special Operations Command in 2005, and rose to the position of chief of the operations division at SOCom. It's a job that combined psychology, military deception and electronic warfare.

Merchant helped the military decide how best to communicate with its adversaries — "convincing folks to do things that they won't normally do," as Leonard put it.

This could involve messages such as encouraging civilians to break away from terrorists. Or giving enemy fighters an ultimatum to lay down their weapons.

"In every case you're not dealing with something you're familiar with. It's another culture, it's another land," Leonard said.

Away from his military work, Merchant loved to golf and fish. His friends all called him "Bo."

When it came to fishing stories, "it was never about the fish he caught, it was about the fight," Leonard said. He would explain how he hooked the fish and how much it fought back. And he always released the fish afterward.

Among civilian and military colleagues who heard the news of Merchant's death, Leonard said, "to a person, they are all personally devastated."

Leonard was in a group of soldiers who parachuted out of a C-130 plane Thursday on a regular training exercise. Although military parachutists sometimes drop into stadiums, and one died in Tampa in 2001 while training for a USF football game appearance, this jump had nothing to do with the Super Bowl.

Witnesses said one parachutists seem to veer far from the group, and dropped into a lake outside of MacDill Air Force Base. He separated from his parachute and began swimming, but for unknown reasons he went under the water. The cause of the accident is under investigation.

Merchant is survived by his wife, Terri, of Valrico; his parents, Col. James Merchant (U.S.Army, Ret.) and Susan Merchant of St. Augustine; and a brother, Robert S. Merchant.

Funeral arrangements were pending Friday. A memorial service will be held at MacDill.

Asked to describe his colleague, Leonard said this: "Warrior. Leader. Friend."

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

Parachutist was a distinguished soldier 01/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 10:52pm]
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