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Kazakhstan honors Navy vet for nuke work

Dec. 24, 2012 - 11:03AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 24, 2012 - 11:03AM  |  
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. John Booker started out as a country boy from Cumberland. He knew about tractors when he joined the Navy in 1960.

Now mostly retired, Booker recently was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Kazakhstan for his work destroying nuclear infrastructure.

The medal was one of a group struck to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the country's decision to go nuclear-free.

"I had no idea I was getting it," Booker said.

A friend still working in the country accepted it and brought it back for Booker, who served 30 years in the Navy.

"There was not a whole lot of opportunity for anybody (in Cumberland), particularly if you were black," he said.

In the Navy, he became the first black master chief cryptologist, he said.

After that, he went into the civil service, where he was given the job of helping to dismantle the remnants of the Soviet nuclear infrastructure in the new breakaway republics that formed with the fall of the Soviet Union.

His first job began in 1991 in Belarus, where he was put in charge of cleaning up a 90-metric-ton fuel spill. Russians pulling out of the area had dumped the fuel, called mazut.

Booker grabbed a bunch of smart guys and attacked the problem. In the end, he used a variety of approaches, including heating the soil to burn off the fuel, he said.

He was also blowing up rocket launch pads. He said his team took a more refined approach, putting enough explosive under the pad to raise it up to three feet in the air. He contrasted that with the other guys' approach.

"The Russians put so much dynamite under a launch pad, they still have pieces coming down," he quipped.

In the Ukraine, he oversaw destruction of aircraft, missiles and other strategic assets. Missiles and aircraft largely got chopped up, often with laser torches, he said.

"It wasn't like sledgehammer work, because they had all kinds of chemicals and things that could kill you," he said.

When fuel was in tanks, instead of on the ground, he was able to dilute some of it for peaceful uses, he said.

In Kazakhstan, Booker's chief task was overseeing the destruction of many miles of Soviet nuclear test tunnels deep inside mountains.

This time, he got to use the heavy explosives. That is, of course, after making sure he wasn't about to spread radioactive debris all over the place. He even saw that workers tore up the roads that led to the tunnel sites.

The first former Soviet Republic that his wife, Agnes Booker, visited was Belarus. While her husband was working, she had her own driver and interpreter, she recalled.

"I got the royal treatment everywhere I went," she said.

Whatever country she was in, she said, someone with a little English would almost always turn up, making communication possible.

She recalled going down to the restaurant of a hotel. The waiter spotted her right off the bat.

"He immediately knew who I was, because John was the only black man, so he assumed that, because I was of color ... I was his wife."

John Booker now works an associate at a funeral home. It's a profession he got involved with before he joined the Navy, he said, and he's stayed in touch with it all through the years, helping out now and then.

He was quick to add his assessment of the Kazakh people.

"I think they are a great people, a fantastic people," he said.

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