Mesa native Harold Engstrom was a key intelligence soldier in tracking down Saddam Hussein.
The kind of man who would fall asleep at night while reading the dictionary.
The kind of American who would join the Army at age 33 because terrorists had struck his homeland.
And now the Mesa native is the kind of intelligence soldier who can — and did — help track down Saddam Hussein.
After months of intense intelligence work, the corporal and his colleagues were a mile away, in one of Saddam’s old palaces, when the former Iraqi dictator was flushed out of a hole in the ground Saturday near Tikrit.
"For years to come, I can always say: I was in the unit that caught Saddam," Engstrom said in an e-mail to his wife only hours after the capture. "I was in the intelligence section of the unit that caught Saddam — tracked him and his men for eight months."
It figures, said his wife, parents and friends. Engstrom is perfectly suited to unravel the tangled web of clans and allies that had concealed Saddam from the beginning of the war last March.
"He was always very precocious, an avid reader," said his mother, Ann Engstrom of Mesa. "He would always like to do puzzles, that kind of thing. Research. Finding out about stuff." He learned the library’s Dewey decimal system at age 4 or 5 and his head was always full of baseball statistics.
Growing up in an old central Mesa neighborhood, Engstrom went to Edison Elementary, Kino Junior High and finally Westwood High School.
"Good kid, good family," said longtime friend Elva Lesueur, whose son Rusty was Engstrom’s best buddy growing up. "We belong to the same ward in the LDS church. He and my son used to play ‘Starsky and Hutch’ all the time. That’s probably where he got his start."
His father, Gus, had served in the Army in the mid-’50s, but a military career seemed unlikely as Engstrom studied history at the University of Utah and got his master’s from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was teaching sixthgrade language arts at Cordova Primary School in west Phoenix.
Engstrom’s wife, Beverly, is an international relocation consultant for a Coldwell Banker real estate office in Scottsdale. They’ve been married eight years.
"When Sept. 11 happened that morning, it hit him very hard," she said.
Engstrom echoed that in an e-mail Thursday from Iraq.
"Having studied history as an undergraduate, as well as being very patriotic by nature, the enormity of the events was evident," he wrote. "The morning it happened, I recall telling Beverly, ‘This will change everything.’ "
Within a month he began talking about joining the military; he swore into the Army that October, the day before his 34th birthday, but had to wait until the next spring before heading off to basic training.
Beverly calls herself "an Air Force brat"; after growing up in a military family, she’s used to the anxieties. In fact, she even had suggested the military as a career option for her husband before he made the decision himself. Still, she said, the long months of separation are difficult — made all the more so by the loss last year of a baby, stillborn at eight months.
"He enjoyed going through boot camp," Engstrom’s father said. "He got a kick out of testing himself because he was older than most of the guys. Because he had been a schoolteacher they all called him ‘Teach.’ He sort of wondered whether he would be up to it physically — and he was."
Engstrom received intelligence training at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona and eventually was assigned to the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division, Alpha Company, 104th Military Intelligence Battalion. The Fourth Division set up shop around Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, in the early days of the war. Engstrom’s unit was assigned to help break down the violent resistance that has harassed coalition forces since major combat ended — and, if possible, to capture Saddam. They operated out of one of Saddam’s captured palaces.
He worked with another junior intelligence analyst, Lt. Angela Santana, a former secretary from Ohio. Both were interviewed for an article that appeared Thursday on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.
At first the job seemed impossible. Intelligence gathered the names of more than 9,000 members of extended families loyal to Saddam — using arrests and interrogations if they had to, but offering financial rewards to those willing to volunteer information.
Engstrom and Santana said their commander told them, "Figure it out, draw the lines, make me a chart and find every crucial person connected to Saddam."
By September, they said, they had winnowed the list to about 300 crucial names. They posted them on a huge chart. It had Saddam’s picture in the middle, with lines connecting it to six main tribes in the area whose members were believed to be shielding Saddam and fueling the resistance fighters.
As information came in, the chart grew in size and complexity.
"We learned about the Iraqi army, structure, history and tribal culture before we got here," Engstrom told the Journal. "But it wasn’t until we started working on the chart that it really hit us. The extent and depth of how much the tribes were intertwined and integrated was beyond our expectation and frankly shocked us."
American officers believe the chart is so accurate that it is the one the CIA uses to track the complex relationships of Iraqi clansmen, Engstrom told his family in an email. Still, he sought Thursday to deflect some of the credit coming his way.
"The Wall Street Journal overstated the situation a bit," Engstrom told the Tribune. "There was more than just two of us pursuing the goal. Yes, we created the link chart, but every soldier on the intelligence team contributed greatly."
From the mountain of information, Engstrom and Santana pinpointed one key source who, if captured, could lead to Saddam’s hideout. They alerted commanders to look for him. The man — still unnamed for security reasons — had eluded capture several times before he was finally tracked down Dec. 12 in Baghdad.
Army units immediately took him to Tikrit, where he spilled the beans on Saddam.
Engstrom told his family by e-mail that he stayed in Saddam’s old palace, tracking the action via satellite imagery, as 600 troops surrounded a farm where Saddam was hiding, about a mile away in a village named Ad Dawr.
"Took him completely by surprise," Engstrom wrote. "He didn’t have his suicide vest on. . . . He was outside around the back of the house, sitting in a dark hole. From lush, opulent palaces — built on the blood of innocent Iraqis, to a cold, dark hole. They brought him back in the house. Full beard, long hair. At least his evil sons put up a fight. . . . he revealed himself as a coward."
His unit erupted in jubilation at the news, Engstrom wrote. "The fever . . . surpassed anything a Super Bowl could even dream of."
But as word of the capture passed up the chain of command, from the field in Iraq to President Bush in Camp David, Engstrom and his team knew they had to keep a momentous secret.
"All phones, computers, cell phones, e-mail were turned off," he wrote. "No reporting of it. Complete blackout. So, all night and all day (Sunday) here we are sitting on the biggest news story of the year. We were just in la-la land last night. It was surreal."
It’s been surreal for his family and friends, too.
"I understand the magnitude of it, but I don’t think it’s quite hit yet," said Rusty Lesueur, whose friendship with Engstrom dates to third grade. "It is amazing to see him where he’s at. I’m proud of him."
Engstrom told the Tribune on Thursday he knows his job is not over.
"While the capture of Saddam Hussein was a great achievement, nobody is naive enough to think that the resistance is going to stop," he wrote. "And so, our work continues: More terrorists to catch, more work to be done."
Still, he expressed a sense of wonderment in an e-mail to family members only hours after Saddam’s capture.
"Who would’ve thought? Who would’ve thought, back on 19 October 2001, that my path in the Army would lead me into the unit that captured Saddam? How do you forecast that kind of twisting path?"
Nobody could have forecast that, of course. But again, it’s no surprise to those who know him that he wound up in the middle of something big.
"Hal — he did it," Elva Lesueur said. "He’s a real smart young man. We’ve known that a long time."