Staff Sgt. Adin Salkanovic of F Troop, 9th Cavalry, in front of the unit's headquarters at Camp Grey Wolf in Baghdad's International Zone.

Staff Sgt. Adin Salkanovic of F Troop, 9th Cavalry, in front of the unit's headquarters at Camp Grey Wolf in Baghdad's International Zone. (Enes Dulami / S&S)

Everything about Staff Sgt. Adin Salkanovic says soldier.

His clear, deliberate speech, close-cropped hair and serious demeanor give him an air of authority usually reserved for those with a lifetime of military experience, not five years of U.S. Army service.

Those five years don’t tell the whole story, though.

When he was only 14, Salkanovic spent a year in the Bosnian army, fighting Serbian forces that surrounded his hometown of Sarajevo for 3½ years between 1992 and 1995.

“I volunteered many times but because of my age they said, ‘no,’” said Salkanovic, 24, who now serves as a scout with Troop F, 9th Cavalry, in Baghdad. “But I kept volunteering, I was one of those guys who wanted to see some action.”

Finally, the army relented and Salkanovic became a soldier, first proving himself by working with radios or carrying ammunition. After a few months he moved to the front lines, which were less than 1½ miles from his home.

“It was World War I-style fighting, trench warfare,” he said. “There were a lot of mortar attacks, howitzers and tanks — a lot of armor got involved. Both sides took a lot of casualties from the minefields and snipers.”

After about a year of fighting, Salkanovic’s father was wounded in battle.

“I kind of quit after my dad was injured,” he said. “I had to take care of my family. I had volunteered in the first place and they understood that I could walk out at any time because of my age.”

Salkanovic was the middle of three children and the oldest son, so it fell on him to provide for the family. He ran the household for two years until the family emigrated to the United States in 1995 to get medical help for his sister, who had a severe case of scoliosis.

Salkanovic’s family settled in San Jose, Calif., and while his sister received medical treatment, he attended school.

“I was lost for three months,” he said. Neither he nor his siblings spoke English. “I would guess what they were saying from one or two words and piece it together. After three months we all kind of felt comfortable speaking English.”

Once his sister’s two surgeries were complete, Salkanovic’s family decided to move back to Sarajevo, then part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1997.

“I told my dad I wasn’t going to stay,” Salkanovic said. He returned to San Jose, working construction jobs until he finished high school.

“As soon as I got my high school diploma I joined the Army,” he said. “I thought I would enjoy it.”

He said the Army gave him no special consideration for his time as a child soldier. He still had to go through basic training.

And he found the U.S. Army quite different from the Bosnian army.

“As far as training, discipline and equipment … you can’t compare it,” he said. The Bosnian army “was a regular army, just lacking in uniformity. Every battalion had their own uniform and standards.”

In 2001, he was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, deploying twice to Kuwait right before and right after Sept. 11, 2001. When Troop F was created, Salkanovic joined the unit, which is now deployed to Camp Grey Wolf in the International Zone.

Salkanovic’s history as a child soldier followed him into the unit, but he doesn’t tell many war stories.

“He doesn’t talk about it unless you ask,” said Troop F 1st Sgt. Kirby Carter. “Guys who’ve seen bad stuff don’t talk about it. If they talk about it, they’ve usually had to embellish it.”

Carter said that Salkanovic doesn’t tell stories about combat, but shares his past combat experience in other ways.

“He’s a real good leader,” Carter said. “When he gets out of the gate, he flips a switch and he’s ready for combat.”

“He knows a lot,” said Pfc. Joseph Stark, who is part of his scout squad. “It helps. I’d rather go out with someone who’s been in combat before.”

Carter said that Salkanovic’s squad has seen some serious combat in its nearly six months in Iraq.

Shortly after its arrival, the squad fought through a 4½-mile long coordinated ambush in Abu Ghraib and manned the Baghdad International Airport perimeter when it came under attack, later clearing the buildings that had housed the enemy fighters.

“It just clicked over the first time we got engaged,” said Salkanovic about returning to combat. “It’s just like riding a bicycle.”

“Anyone who fought in a war at 14 will be more mature than your average young sergeant,” Carter said. “We got a lot of young NCOs who came as specialists or young sergeants and grew into real good staff sergeants and will be the future of the NCO corps.”

Salkanovic said he hopes to make the U.S. Army a career.

“I’ve picked a job I like, and it fits my capabilities and personality,” he said.

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