Kiski Township’s Staff Sgt. Stevon Booker receives military’s second-highest honor
Thirty-one soldiers who participated in the Thunder Run mission near Baghdad on April 5, 2003, received the Silver Star for valor.
Only one of them — Army Staff Sgt. Stevon Booker of Kiski Township — has had that award upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest honor, according to Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson.
Richardson awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously to Booker’s mother, Freddie Jackson, and younger sister, Kim Talley-Armstead, in a ceremony Friday at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.
“Stevon receiving this is more than I could have ever dreamed and imagined,” Jackson, of Kiski Township, said after being presented with the cross medal.
Jackson said she chose to have the ceremony at Soldiers & Sailors because her son was already listed in its Hall of Valor.
The ornate Distinguished Service Cross with red, white and blue ribbon has Booker’s name inscribed inside a wreath on the back.
“He gave his life for something bigger than self. He gave his life for others,” said Richardson. She attended Friday’s ceremony along with two retired generals, representatives of Army Secretary Mark Esper and men and women who served with Booker, some of whom traveled hundreds and even thousands of miles for the ceremony.
Booker attended Apollo-Ridge High School and enlisted in the Army right after graduating.
“When he came home for a visit, I asked that he put on his uniform and go to church with me,” Jackson said. “He always did, and he made me very proud.”
On April 5, 2003, the 34-year-old Booker was commander of a tank that was second in a convoy of 30 tanks and 14 armored fighting vehicles from the 3rd Infantry Division’s Spartan Brigade.
The mission up Iraqi Highway 8 was designed to test Baghdad’s defenses.
The defenses turned out to be thinner than expected, but still deadly.
“There were 1 million tough fighters in the city,” Richardson said.
Booker and three other soldiers in a tank called “Another Episode” were behind a tank carrying their platoon leader and his crew when the leader’s tank was disabled by enemy fire.
Booker immediately used the radio to rally the soldiers in his tank and tanks nearby. His distinctive, booming voice told them to do their jobs and remember their training, said Col. Andrew Hilmes, who was Booker’s company commander in Thunder Run.
When machine guns in Booker’s tank failed, he grabbed his rifle and got out atop the tank. Using the radio to direct fire, he helped stop an enemy troop carrier before its soldiers could get out.
Booker also shot at least 20 enemy soldiers along the road over a five-mile stretch until he was shot, according to Hilmes.
The Thunder Run was a tough, bloody fight that ended two days later with the Army punching open the road to Baghdad International Airport, Richardson said.
Hilmes said Booker saved hundreds of lives because of the tough training he gave them to prepare them for combat.
Booker also saved the lives of his crew and many other crews by destroying threats along the way, Hilmes said.
Francisco DeJesus traveled from Apple Valley, Calif., with his wife and 5-month-old daughter to attend the ceremony.
“I had to be here,” DeJesus said. “He was one of my trainers. He was a phenomenal person.”
Booker could be tough.
“He was part of the older Army. No nonsense. He rode you hard, but it paid off,” DeJesus said.
But once Booker was off duty, he could lighten up.
“Once he put his Steelers jersey on, he was a fun-loving man,” DeJesus recalled.
Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at 724-226-4711, [email protected] or via Twitter .