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Larry Smith didn’t get to be Command Sergeant Major by being a softie.

He’s an old-school sergeant. As the ranking enlisted man in the 113th Engineer Battalion, his duties center around making sure top brass understands what their soldiers need, and that soldiers understand the rules.

Smith is a teaser. Wednesday night, when the last of the 113th Engineer Battalion was reuniting with their families after a year in Mosul, the 38th Division Armory was full of his troops and their exuberant families.

Spec. Tyler Egli, the chaplain’s bodyguard, introduced his girlfriend to the old soldier. “You’re with him?” Smith asked the young woman. “You gotta come here. I gotta tell you the truth about this guy.”

He put his arm around her and led her a short distance away, spoke quietly to her for a moment. When they returned, she was giggling. Egli didn’t know what to expect.

“See?” said Smith. “I couldn’t let you go without knowing the truth.”

It was vintage Smith: In your face, gentle. He’s every enlisted man’s uncle, and something of an imp. He was one of the last soldiers to leave the Armory Thursday. When he did, there were tears in his eyes. The hard old sergeant was choked up. This is all he could manage to say:

“It’s tough,” he said. He wiped his glasses and took a couple of deep breaths. “It’s tough.”

Another seasoned non-commissioned officer, State Command Sergeant Major of the Indiana National Guard James Brown, was on hand for the welcome home. He was asked what is hardest for the soldier returning from a year in a combat zone halfway around the world.

“They internalize,” he said. “They keep things penned up.” When that happens, said the sergeant, pressure tends to build up, and come blasting out. That can cause troubles at home.

The spouse left behind doesn’t have it all that easy either, he said. “They have been there making decisions,” he said. “They establish a new pecking order,” and the hardened soldier can feel left out.

His answer? “There is no single answer, but it helps to do things together: Go to church, play Monopoly, something. Just don’t keep it all inside.”

Published Dec. 15, 2005