LEWISTON – After months in a quiet corner of Iraq – building medical clinics in the Kurdish mountains to the north – a piece of shrapnel nearly prevented Robert Smith from coming home on leave.

The 42-year-old sergeant from Mechanic Falls was struck in the head during a mortar attack on his base in Mosul.

Two minutes later, when the medics arrived to tend the 2-inch gash above his right ear, his first thought was of home.

Yes, they told him as they stitched the wound, which will earn him a Purple Heart. He could still go home.

Smith left Iraq on Oct. 20. He is scheduled to return on Thursday.

It has been a quick break from the war.

Though he has spent days with his family – enjoying meals, ball games on TV and one-on-one time with each of his children – part of him is still in Iraq.

“You can’t turn the switch off,” Smith said. That won’t happen until he’s back for good.

At least he’ll return to a relatively safe place, where morale is high. It wasn’t always like that.

Smith’s unit, Company C of the 133rd Engineer Battalion, is currently in the Iraqi town of Diyannah. It’s a rural area with little fighting.

And it’s a long way from Mosul, where the Lewiston-based unit was stationed upon its arrival in late March.

In the city of 2.5 million, the base has been a target of enemy mortar fire. Over the weeks, the Iraqi insurgents seemed to figure out where the American targets were.

“When we went there it wasn’t bad, until they got to be better shots,” said Smith. “I think their intelligence improved.”

The company’s job was to improve the facilities at the base, making the structures a little more permanent. They also worked to protect convoys. Temperatures reached into the 130s. He once snapped a photo of a thermometer in the sun. It read “148 degrees.”

It was rough and it was getting rougher. Morale was low.

From time to time, Smith managed a phone call or an e-mail home. Often, he’d keep the details to himself.

“A lot of the guys are careful what they share with family,” he said. It didn’t always work. His wife, Sue, could read the signals.

“I always knew he had a bad day when he asked if I watched the news,” said Sue Smith. She has coped by avoiding the news completely.

It wasn’t all bad.

As summer began, the company’s mission changed. They were sent to Diyannah.

The ongoing job is the construction of three 30- by 40-foot concrete buildings to be used as medical clinics.

As the project continues, morale is high.

Local companies including Maine Oxy, Per-se Technologies, Dunkin’ Donuts and the Sun Journal have sent packages to the troops.

Many of the soldiers have laptop computers with built-in games. As the news arrives, they follow the baseball season or watch the political campaigns.

The younger ones seem more liberal, more hopeful that a change in the presidency might speed the war.

“They say, Kerry will get us home,'” Smith said.

But the United States will be there for a while, he said. There’s too much to do and so many people to reach.

In Diyannah, the Iraqis are welcoming, he said. A simple wave thrills children.

It’s so different from Mosul.

“The people want us there, but they’re afraid,” said Smith. When the soldiers pass in convoys, sometimes waving as they go, they get only stares in return.

“They are afraid to wave,” he said. An insurgent might see them. There could be reprisals.

It’s a world that will be tough to re-enter, said Smith.

When he left, his whole family was there at the bus as the company drove away. That was too difficult.

He’ll say goodbye to the children – Shane, 18, Phillip, 16, and Gabrielle, 7 – at home. Sue will accompany him to the airport.

“Leaving is going to be hard,” he said.

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