Army Staff Sgt. Stevon Booker didn’t have to climb out of his tank on April 5, 2003, but his unit was under heavy fire near Baghdad and he refused to hunker down.
Booker, then a 34-year-old commander of the M1A1 tank, climbed up to fire a .50-caliber machine gun mounted atop the tank. Then, when that gun malfunctioned, he grabbed a rifle and kept firing.
The Kiski Township native fired hundreds of rounds at insurgents over the span of nearly five miles before being fatally wounded. He also relayed information that helped American forces destroy an enemy truck carrying an anti-aircraft gun before he died.
The actions of Booker, who is being honored April 5 with the Distinguished Service Cross, didn’t surprise Daniel Thompson, who considered Booker a mentor and was in a nearby tank the day he was killed.
“I told him I’d never been in combat. I didn’t know if I could make it through. My son was 5 or 6 months old, and I was worried,” said Thompson of Springfield, Ohio.
“I asked him what happens to my son if I wasn’t there to raise him. And Booker said, ‘Don’t worry, if anything happens, I will take care of your son,’ ” Thompson recounted.
Booker had enlisted in the Army soon after graduating from Apollo-Ridge High School in 1988. When he died about 15 years later, flags throughout the Apollo area were lowered to half-staff.
He was the first soldier from Southwestern Pennsylvania to be killed in the Iraq War.
Now 16 years after that, he is receiving the nation’s second-highest military honor for valor. He previously had been awarded the Silver Star, but the military is upgrading that during a public ceremony at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.
“The Army worked hard to have the ceremony 16 years to the day he died,” said Booker’s mother, Freddie Jackson of Kiski Township.
A spokesman for the 3rd Infantry Division in which Booker had been serving said the division is “extremely honored” that Booker is posthumously receiving the Distinguished Service Cross.
“Not only is this a great honor for us, but for his family as well,” said Lt. Col. Patrick J.O. Husted, a public affairs officer with the 3rd Infantry Division.
“Staff Sgt. Booker demonstrated what it meant to be an American soldier, one who exuded and embodied the Army values and warrior ethos,” Husted said. “In his selfless actions, he epitomized the concept of shoot, move and communicate, effectively protecting the members of his platoon with zero regard for his personal safety.”
Husted said Booker “exemplified the highest ideals of the American soldier, and demonstrated this with his valiant and intrepid actions. He placed the mission first and never accepted defeat.”