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EDITOR’S NOTE: The Indiana National Guard 113th Engineer Battalion is expected to return to Indianapolis on or about Dec. 17 after a year in Iraq’s second largest city. This is the last of a series of articles about the people they left behind.

The dreadful little shadow that has followed Margie Sharp around for the last year is about to disappear.

Her son, Ashley, a 23-year-old Andrean High School graduate, is coming home from war, intact. He has been driving a Humvee on combat missions in Mosul, Iraq, with the Indiana National Guard 113th Engineer Battalion since last December. They’re expected back in Indiana next week.

“It’s just always there with you that they are gone, that they’re missing, that they’re a part of you and they are not there,” the 56-year-old divorced mother of three said recently over a Taco Bell salad on U.S. 30.

Ashley Sharp will return something of a hero, having earned the Commendation for Valor for coming to the aid of wounded buddies during a mortar attack on the Mosul East power plant. But he won’t be the same.

“I’m sure that I’m not going to get the same kid back,” his mother said.

“How can it be the same person when we all grow? We all change. Certainly I’ve had changes in my life since Ashley left.”

She figures some of the guys in Ashley’s unit think “they are going back to things the same way that they were when they left. It can’t be that way, because none of us are the same.

“I know Ashley’s going to change. Probably – hopefully he’ll be as fun-loving as impulsive as he was, but somehow I don’t think that he will be,” she said.

That could represent a significant loss. When I was embedded with his battalion in Mosul this summer, I got a big kick out of Sharp, the gutty lieutenant he drove Humvee for and their turret gunner. Their running commentary would fit right in on the Bob and Tom radio show.

As Ashley must have changed, so has the life he left a year ago. He divested himself of his stake in Buddy and Pals eatery, right outside Lakes of the Four Seasons. His mom sold her LOFS house where they lived to be closer to her work and, for now, is living in Crown Point. She got rid of his used Mercedes, which he was trying to sell anyway, and his dog, a Rotweiler-Chow mix.

You sold your boy’s dog while he was away at war?

“It was an 80-pound dog,” she said in a matter of fact tone. “He was really sweet and he was my buddy. We’d go for walks every night. When I was there, he was good, but he was destroying my house. He tore up the linoleum. I had to replace linoleum. I had to replace a door.”

Speaking of chewing, Ashley is bound to enjoy holiday chow more this Christmas than he did when the 113th was in pre-deployment training at Camp Atterbury. Ashley‘s wisdom teeth were removed just before he came home for Turkey Day, 2004.

“He didn’t eat much. Mashed potatoes, that was about it. Mashed potatoes. All the guys had to have their wisdom teeth pulled” before shipping out, she said.

Margie Sharp hasn’t decided what to feed her son when he returns, but there’s a good chance he will become reacquainted with his favorite potato soup and homemade white bread soon. He also is quite fond of Polish sausage. Likely restaurant: Chili’s, for the hot nacho dip.

Mrs. Sharp says news of her son’s medal was a little disorienting. “After the incident he called to tell me about it and said that they were under attack, that they were under mortar fire, and that some people had been wounded and that he had assisted them.

“When he was telling me about it, all I was hearing was ‘under attack,’ ‘mortar fire,’ ‘wounded’ and it really took me about a week or maybe 10 days to recover. Then finally I sent him an e-mail saying ‘Congratulations, I’m really proud of you, but ... I was like in shock when he was first telling me about it, because all I could hear was ‘under attack.’”

Ashley Sharp is especially close to his two big sisters, Corrie and Carin. He hasn’t seen Carin’s youngest daughter, born prematurely this summer. He spoke of the birth, and associated difficulties, with notable feeling while in Iraq.

He joined the Guard while in high school, and recently re-enlisted. Is that OK with Mother Sharp?

“You have to back off, let your children lead their lives, you know. And Ashley likes being a soldier.”

She’s not so sure about the prospects of a smooth transition for returning soldiers. “I think that change is going to be the main thing,” she said. “Change is going to be everywhere around. The advantage for Ashley is that he is single, he doesn’t have children. He is starting out new. He is starting out over again with going to college in a new apartment and starting a new life for himself.

“Some of the guys who are coming back who have small children or children that were born while they were gone – I think that is going to be very difficult for them to get back into the routine and get back into the mode.”

In war, soldiers don’t tend to discuss things, they tend to act. “You just go and you do your job and you go back,” she said. “And there aren’t a whole lot of interpersonal skills that are probably involved in their jobs ... But when you’re considering, when you have to consider other people’s feelings and how they might react, its a little different. That’s coming from a guidance counselor’s perspective.”

Published Dec. 7, 2005