At 28, Staff Sgt. Thomas Larkin is among a growing generation of squad leaders who have essentially grown up in the dust, smoke and mayhem of Iraq.

Brash, combat seasoned and aged beyond their years, these junior noncommissioned officers have a style that is less schoolhouse than practical street experience. Now on their third Iraq tours, they are invaluable leaders, but intimidating figures for young privates and lieutenants just now cutting their teeth as the war enters its fifth year.

“What blows my mind is how young my squad leaders are in years, but how old they seem when you talk to them,” said Capt. Brendan Hobbs, the commander of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division — Larkin’s unit.

“They’re not just shoot-house smart, they know people and they know kids and they understand social tone,” Hobbs said. “But with that comes a lot of cockiness. For a brand new lieutenant coming in, it’s extremely difficult. A lot of the time [the NCOs] don’t want to give the [platoon leader] a chance.”

For Larkin, of Carthage, N.Y., the Army experience began eight years ago, after a brief encounter with higher education.

“To be honest, my dad said ‘Army or Air Force,’ because I went to a year of college and partied my ass off,” Larkin said with a laugh.

The burly father of two said there was never any question about what military occupation he would sign up for. Infantry was a given.

“When you’re little and play G.I. Joe, you don’t say I want to be the commo guy,” Larkin said. “You’re thinking about tanks and guns.”

Even so, Larkin never really thought he’d see combat.

“When I joined, I remember seeing drill instructors and platoon sergeants walking around with Combat Infantryman Badges,” he said. “At the time, I thought they would be the last generation to wear CIBs.”

Larkin found himself deployed to both Bosnia and Kosovo and then to Iraq for the initial invasion. At that time, 10th Mountain soldiers supported special operations forces as they secured critical infrastructure in the northern cities of Irbil and Kirkuk.

Larkin returned a second time in the summer of 2004, when the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division was tasked with defending Baghdad International Airport from mortar and rocket fire.

When Army and Marine units were dispatched to the west and south to quell uprisings in Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala, the unit assumed responsibility for most of western Baghdad, an area just then boiling over with Sunni Arab animosity.

Now, Larkin is roughly seven months into his third tour and assigned to an area immediately south of Baghdad, along Iraq’s violent Sunni-Shiite divide.

The biggest changes he’s seen over these three Iraq deployments have been in equipment and the tactical abilities of the enemy, he said.

Larkin said he’s also astounded by the array of gadgets he and his fellow soldiers are equipped with, including electronic sensors on Humvees that determine the distance and direction of small-arms fire, motion-activated cameras, GPS systems, and better eye protection.

“I think we get a lot more than we ask for now,” Larkin said. “A lot more off-the-shelf commercial stuff.”

In past deployments, Larkin had grown used to haphazard and brief attacks from the enemy. This deployment, he was surprised to find himself fighting in engagements that stretched over a period of days. Such was the case last fall when Company C occupied a schoolhouse in a contentious area south of Baghdad. For four days, soldiers were hit twice a day by coordinated small-arms fire, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

“They’re getting more coordinated,” Larkin said of the enemy. “They’re getting better. Now they know to watch our schedules, they look at the markings on our vehicles, little things that they never paid attention to before, they’re doing now.”

The trick now he said, is communicating that sense of urgency to new soldiers.

“That’s kind of my problem being a leader,” Larkin said. “I’ve been here three times now and I know what’s going to happen. It’s a little frustrating because I expect the newer guys to know, too. I guess I expect them to catch on faster. It seems to take a lot longer for these guys to realize they’re in combat and not just driving around in Humvees.”

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