Booker honored for mission

Published 4:34 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2019

It would take flying small planes over mountains or driving through pastures smoother than the rough roads to reach one of the numerous nuclear testing sites in Kazakhstan.

The testing tunnels snaked underground, in which blasts from testing rockets were contained by custom blast doors.

Using machinery and top-of-the-line resources, a team assigned by the United States government sealed a number of these tunnels, removed the test doors and ultimately rendered facilities unable to test or develop nuclear missiles.

Email newsletter signup

If this sounds like the plot of the next blockbuster action film, it was reality for Cumberland native Dr. John Booker in the early 1990s, as he led a denuclearization team to eliminate nuclear testing sites from Kazakhstan, which has territories in Asia and Europe.

Booker was honored by government officials in Kazakhstan and the United States in Washington D.C. in December of 2018 for his  efforts to rid the country of the testing sites.

Booker received medallions from both Kazakhstan and the U.S. government during the ceremony.

In 2012, Booker was awarded the Medal of Freedom from Kazakhstan for his work. Booker’s Medal of Freedom award was featured in a previous Herald report.

Members of Booker’s family still live in Cumberland County. Booker attended public schools in Cumberland County until 1960, in which he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Booker retired from the U.S. Navy in 1990 after 30 years of service, becoming Master Chief Cryptologist.

Booker said he was assigned to lead the mission with the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency after having contained nuclear substance leakages in Belarus. Over his career, Booker worked in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Eurasian country of Georgia.

His mission in Kazakhstan, Booker said, was to “make those tunnels unusable for further testing.”

“You’ve got to learn a whole new world,” Booker said about working with the Kazakhstan government. “A whole new way of doing things.”

The assignment came as Booker received his doctorate degree from Belarus Academy of Ecology.

The mission came with a host of challenges, not including the rough terrain, the sometimes careless distribution of potential nuclear substances in the tunnels, or venomous snakes.

“If one of them hits you, (it’s) two steps, and you’re all done,” Booker said about the snakes. “They are dripping with poison.”

He said the job required frequent collaboration between Kazakhstan and the United States. Booker said in addition to delegating resources for the large-scale project, he had to make sure that members of his team treated everyone they came into contact with respectfully and professionally.

“It all worked out,” Booker said. “You give a lot of respect, you get a lot of respect.”

He credits members of his team for the ultimate success of the mission. He said

“Sometimes I think, did this really happen,” Booker said about the experience. “Did you really ride those airplanes? As afraid of snakes as you are, did you really go up there and do this? Yes I did.”

Booker is currently retired and lives with Agnes, his wife, in Ivy, a community in Albemarle County.