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For colonel, search mission was a perfect fit

WASHINGTON -- Army Colonel James B. Hickey's mission was to find Saddam Hussein, and those close to the determined, brainy military officer say he was born to accomplish it.

 

"He was the second of six children born to Irish immigrant parents, and he was the only one who came out of the womb wearing combat gear," said Maureen Moran of Naperville, Ill., Hickey's sister.

During a Saturday night raid outside of Tikrit, Iraq, Hickey was at a mobile command post about 150 meters away when several of his soldiers from the First Brigade of the Army's Fourth Infantry Division spotted something suspicious. Pulling back a carpet on the dirt, they peered into a hole and discovered Saddam Hussein.

"It pretty much went off as we had planned, and we got the guy we were looking for," Hickey said in an interview with Don Imus on MSNBC yesterday.

Since Easter, when Hickey arrived in the region, the 3,000-soldier brigade he commands and the rest of the "Iron Horse Division" from Fort Hood, Texas, have been rooting out Ba'ath Party loyalists and searching for Hussein. Hickey, a scholar-soldier with 20 years in the Army and advanced degrees in diplomacy from Georgetown University, public policy from Johns Hopkins, and Russian from the Army's Russian Institute, helped devise the intelligence plan that targeted Hussein and the high-tech tactics that brought him in.

"Hickey is not an average soldier," said Thomas Keaney, executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where Hickey received a master's degree in the early 1990s. "He's a guy with tremendous military qualities and the Army is clearly grooming him for bigger things."

Hickey, 42, grew up in the Chicago suburb of Hickory Hills, where as a youth he filled his room with toy army tanks, GI Joe action figures, and suspended model aircraft from the ceiling. "My father took him to see the movie `Patton,' " Moran recalled. "That really cemented him in the foundation that he wanted to pursue a military career." Hickey and his three brothers, Patrick, Kenneth, and Shawn, attended St. Laurence High School, a private boy's school in Burbank, Ill., where Hickey played varsity soccer and was an honor student who also ran for the student council. There, his love for history and military matters was nurtured by his history teacher, Tom Rezek. "He was a very good student, very respectful and a conscientious kid. He loved the military," said Rezek.

After high school, Hickey went to Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., where he was commissioned an Army second lieutenant by 1982.

"The one thing that sticks out in my mind is after he went to VMI -- he'd come back and was so proud of being a northern boy who could cut it at VMI," Rezek recalled.

Dennis Maguire, a Newton resident and former classmate at VMI, said Hickey was a standout among about 1,300 cadets.

"He was one of the few people that I know of that by the time he graduated, Jim had completed the following qualifications -- airborne school, helicopter assault school and then finally Ranger training. Ranger training is special operations and, I believe, the highest you can obtain in the entire armed forces."

Scott Bellevue, a member of the VMI class of 1983, said Hickey was focused on being a professional soldier, so much so that he took the unusual step of going to Ranger school while he was a VMI cadet.

Hickey's first Army posting was as a captain with the Seventh Cavalry in Schweinfurt, Germany, and he rose quickly through the ranks as an infantry officer.

While in Germany, he attended the Army's Russian Institute, and launched what his biography calls a "secondary career field" -- as a soldier with a solid academic background and exposure to the civilian and foreign scholars.

Hickey's interest in foreign affairs may have been fostered in his own home. His parents were both born in Ireland and his father worked as plumber to help put his six children through college. As a second career the elder Hickeys own the Irish Way, a gift shop in Naperville that specializes in Irish imports.

"This is a true American story -- we were blessed to come here, we worked hard to educate our kids, and now Jim is giving something back to this country we adopted," said Anne Marie Hickey, who spoke to her son on the telephone Sunday.

Moran said the family welcomed opportunities to see brother James on television over the last few months, but she wasn't expecting the call she received from her brother Kenneth at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday. "He said, `You've got to get up. Your brother has done something really important,' " she said.

Leonard reported from Washington; Robertson from New York.

Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein after his capture by US forces. (Reuters Photo)
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