A toast, then, to the fearless. A toast to the souls of iron who shepherded tons of equipment in those trucks, the parade of soft targets crawling across the craggy Afghanistan terrain, rolling the dice.
“Before you leave, you get the intelligence briefing saying the road is filled with IEDs and you’ve got to go down that same road,” Dion Booker recalls. “Usually, there’s only one road to get to one of our bases that we’ve got to support. And if an IED went off yesterday, soldiers still need ammo, water, food. Whatever other supplies, they still need it, we still have to go. So that was scary.
“You learn a lot about yourself when stuff starts blowing up around you. That’s a gut check, right there.”
A toast to Booker, the former Nebraska Cornhuskers safety who’s now an Army captain, this Memorial Day weekend. A toast to those who made it.
A toast, and prayers, to those who didn’t.
“I’ve got to be honest: That type of stuff I don’t like talking about,” says Booker, who suited up for the Big Red from 1998 to 2001 and now serves as an instructor at Army Logistics University in Fort Lee, Va. “It was tough because you start thinking about everything.
“You start thinking about your life, start thinking about my kids, my wife, and you try not to, because you don’t want to hesitate during that time, because there are bullets flying around you. There’s stuff going on around you. You don’t want necessarily to hesitate because that gets to creeping in your mind because you don’t know if that’s going to be ‘it’ or not. I’m not going to say there’s a lot of [those moments], but it’s about your team, it’s about your soldiers around you.
“If they see fear, if I was the highest-ranked [officer], they can’t really see fear or uncertainty. ‘Hey, these are our directions, these are our orders, and that’s what we’re going to do and we’re going to do it.’ And they have to have confidence in my [ability] that you’re going to take care of them. And you’re going to bring them back home.”
A toast to the quiet moments. If Booker finds a second in private on Monday, he’ll drop to his knees and whisper his thanks to The Man upstairs. For being here. For family. For another Memorial Day.
Of his last eight Mays, half were spent abroad — one in southern Afghanistan, three in South Korea, not far from the DMZ.
“It was always special in my family to celebrate Memorial Day,” Booker tells Land of 10. “But when you’re in the Army and you go to Afghanistan and Korea and you really get to see the sacrifices firsthand, it really just hits home with you.”
In 2011, as a lieutenant, Booker headed up a platoon of more than a dozen soldiers supporting a special forces unit. In South Korea from 2013 through 2015, he was a maintenance company commander, directing 155 troops. If they couldn’t fix a weapon or vehicle themselves, brother, they found someone who could.
“I feel like I’d grown up in Korea, in the sense of everything that was thrown at me,” Booker says. “When you’re a commander, you’re working on your own [for] a company of 155 people, you aren’t checking back to your boss every day — you’ve got to figure it out for yourself and make it happen. Make some mistakes, and when it happens, learn from them, do better the next time. It definitely made me a better officer.”
On the front lines, where the stitches of freedom are held fast by the brave, Memorial Day sometimes feels like just another Sunday. Do your job, as Bill Belichick likes to say.
Nobody in the peacekeeping business does it better.
“The toughest part was those rampside ceremonies where you see the coffins and they’re playing that music,” Booker says.
“That’s where you kind of lose it a little bit. Tears started going down your eyes and you remember that friend or moment, that time you talked to that person. And those were the toughest times. And I hated going to those. Even though I wanted to go to those, I hated going to those. Way too many. It was way too many.
“Those were always the hardest, those were absolutely the hardest, seeing that flag. But it was kind of prideful at the same time because you see that flag over the coffin … you’re fighting for them, so they can have a better life.”
A toast to Old Glory. To liberty and justice for all.
“And it doesn’t matter where you’re from. No matter what color you are, it doesn’t matter what religion you are when you’re next to me,” Booker says. “Skin color didn’t matter. It was about that team, just like on the football field. It’s about that team.
“That’s what I loved. I loved my guys when I was down there. I know that at any moment, they would give their life and they would save our [skins]. At the same time, we would do the same for them. And the Afghan citizens, because they wanted a better life, and they [knew] we were here to help them achieve that. It was powerful. Again, you think about all that when you’re down there. Especially those rampside ceremonies. Or if you have any time to yourself. I loved the soldiers we had down there. We were a team.”
A toast to teammates, old and new. Booker was a rover and free safety at the tail end of the Big Red’s salad days, a key cog on the last Nebraska squad to win a conference title (1999) and on the last Huskers team to play for a national championship (2001).
He’s still close with football pals such as DeJuan Groce and Philip Bland, even after all those years, all those countries, all those miles. His 20th high school reunion is coming up. It flies.
“You blink and don’t know where it went,” Booker laughs. “And I enjoy every day, every day, man, serving in the military.”
He enlisted in 2008 after stints in the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League’s old af2 circuit, seeking brotherhood, seeking purpose. These days, he’s teaching at Fort Lee and nearing completion of his master’s degree in logistics management, the science of getting anything from A to B, anywhere — through rain, sleet, snow or enemy fire.
“Technically, I could go work for an Amazon, FedEx, U.S. Postal Service, Wal-Mart distribution plants, anything that has to do with logistics,” Booker explains. “That’s what I like, that’s what I’m doing in the Army right now. I’m a logistics officer. I know how to already support whoever needs whatever supplies that they need.”
That said, old habits, old loyalties, die hard. A “Blackshirts” flag, adorned with the infamous skull and crossbones, hangs in his office. It’s the same one he flew in the Middle East and in South Korea.
“That flag’s been everywhere two different times,” Booker says. “That’s how people know me.
“It’s funny: Even at [our] school, [it’s], ‘He’s the Blackshirts guy.’ And once I tell them who I am, they go, ‘OK.’ There are a lot of people from Nebraska who go here, and I’ll usually sign some things for them. And I love it because I talk about Nebraska and people don’t even think I’m from California, they think I’m from Nebraska.”
He actually was raised north of San Diego, the son of a longtime Marine, hell on two wheels back at El Camino High. #Calibraska before #Calibraska was cool.
“One of my good friends, he went to school at Florida State, another one is a big fan of Alabama, another one is [a fan of] Oklahoma, another one is Colorado,” Booker says. “My boss is a big Colorado fan. So every chance they get to rub something in, they make sure they do. They never let me forget about any losses or any missed tackles I had.”
Not as long as there’s digital evidence. Booker says he’ll come to class first thing in the morning to find YouTube clips of him missing an assignment or getting burned over the top.
“My students love to put that up on the big screen. They have that on in the morning when I walk in,” Booker says, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I appreciate that.’ It’s like all the stuff I did wrong. No good highlights, all right? ‘I appreciate that. None of you are going to pass this exam.’
“It was the one with the national championship game [the 2002 Rose Bowl] with Miami, Andre Johnson running past us. They had that on in the room and I’m like, ‘Come on, man.’ Then they had that Colorado game that we really sucked in [a 62-36 Buffaloes win in November 2001]; they made sure they had that one. No good highlights of me.”
And yet those same students who relish making him live out his football nightmares of 15 to 16 years earlier also pooled their pennies and sprung for a farewell gift after the class had ended:
A picture of Memorial Stadium with a switch to activate tiny bulbs that replicate the stadium lights at Lincoln during a night game.
“I love it,” Booker says. “I turn it on every day. You can see that Sea of Red. I absolutely love it.”
A toast to Big Red Nation. To the bug that digs deep inside your soul and never leaves you.
A toast to three autumns in South Korea following a tiny, running box score on a laptop to get your Huskers fix.
No balloons. No band. No Sea. No N-Club of Seoul.
“I think I need to start one,” Booker laughs.
“It’s funny, too, because no matter where I go, I always meet Nebraska [fans] or someone from Nebraska. When I was in Afghanistan, there were a couple people from Nebraska because there was a Guard unit [from] there.
“I actually signed some autographs for them as I was passing through. Wherever I go, it’s sort of the same thing …”
Hey, man, aren’t you Michael Booker?
‘The water tastes a little bit fresher, the hamburger tastes a little bit more tender. Because you really understand the sacrifices of what someone does for this great country of ours.’
— Former Nebraska safety and current Army captain Dion Booker
“[I’d say], ‘No, that was my brother,’” Dion says of his older sibling, a star cornerback on two Huskers national title teams and later a first-round draft choice of the Atlanta Falcons.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll settle for your autograph.’ ”
A toast to settling.
A toast to heroes.
“Even in different countries, those that are not U.S. citizens, they even thank us,” Booker says. “And I think that’s sometimes even more powerful. You had South Koreans, they would come to the post and we would have dinner with them. And they would thank us for being over there and having helped in protecting their country.
“And, again, it humbles you. You would think, like, ‘Man, they don’t even know what [Memorial Day] is.’ They do. And they thanked us. They’re like, ‘Man, I really appreciate what you do for us and what those before you did for us.’
“It definitely means a lot, but when you feel it, and feel it firsthand, you really can relate. You just appreciate that a little bit more.
“The water tastes a little bit fresher, the hamburger tastes a little bit more tender. Because you really understand the sacrifices of what someone does for this great country of ours. You really understand it, most definitely. [You] always celebrated it, but now, it just really hits home for me. I’m a little bit more thankful for that, having opportunities that I’ve had to serve my country.”