Roy Exum: More Important Than Me

Sunday, September 8, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In only a few days from now, our nation will pause as we remember its worst day. Oh please, let’s be better than that; I remember it constantly throughout any year ever since but that’s because 9/11 fuels my individual hope of making my United States better in some way every day.  On Sept. 11, 2001, there is not one American among us, obviously except those under the age of 18, who cannot tell you exactly where they were when the United States of America was attacked by foreign aggressors on our own soil. It was horrifying, surreal, the mother of all nightmares. In New York City a child would come home from school and her parents never would. Over 40 percent of the 3,000 bodies killed were never found and today another 30,000 suffer irreparable lung conditions.

So as I begin to write this week about ‘The Day I Will Never Forget’ the first face I remember most vividly is that of Heather Penney, a fighter-jet pilot who just happened to be standing in the Ops Center that morning at Andrews Airbase in our nation’s capital when Vice President Dick Cheney, through the Secret Service, ordered “get somebody airborne.” Of course, she was as shocked as any of us – more so because every member of our military all over the world was already pulling the straps tight – but back then there were only seven fighter pilots on duty at Andrews that particular Tuesday morning.

Within minutes it was learned a fourth hijacked airliner was possibly en route to New York City, this after the Pentagon was hit, and Col.

Marc “Sass” Sasseville, ordered three of those pilots to get in the air as soon as the planes could be armed. He then shouted, “‘Lucky’ (Penney’s call sign) you are coming with me.”

What you need to know is that up until 9/11 fighter planes were unarmed on the ground. Since the attack there have been at least two ‘hot-cocked’ fighter planes at every air base in America with pilots on hand, but in 2001, when ‘Sass’ and ‘Lucky’ scrambled, ‘Sass’ was pulling on his flight suit when his eyes caught Lucky’s. “I’ll take the cockpit,” he told her and she calmly replied, “I’ll take the tail.” With no time to arm their F-16 Vipers, the two pilots were going hunting without any bullets. They were going to bring down that Boeing 757 the only way they could, by ramming it in a kamikaze way that would vaporize their lives 

“Because we had no weapons, no missiles, we were essentially going to be Kamikaze pilots,” Penney explained, adding there was no time to arm the two F-16s before taking flight. “The decision was easy. Anyone who saw that footage that morning would have made the same decision that I did," Penney said.

“When we got to our planes, I immediately started going down my pre-flight checklist and Sass yelled, ‘What in the hell are you doing! Get in that plane and get your butt going. We are going now!” she would later say, “and when I throttled up at take-off, I didn’t think I would be back.”

A single mother, mind you, with two infant girls in search for United Flight 93 never once wavered. Penney’s dad, a pilot running East Coast routes for United, could have easily been the pilot on that 757 they were hunting, and as the flight path took the pair of screaming Vipers at over 400 miles an hour over the burning Pentagon, Lucky would recall she was too busy flying the plane to dwell on emotion. “There was no way not to notice the smoke that was billowing out of the building. It was beyond description. I didn’t dwell on it because there was too much to do.

“We got over into Pennsylvania without seeing anything after sanitizing the air space and then headed back to D.C. to make sure we weren’t being flanked.” That’s when she found out other American heroes had given their lives as Flight 93 crashed killing all aboard. She and Sass flew all day, that afternoon escorting President Bush’s Air Force One back to Andrews airbase.

Penney wouldn’t allow interviews for several years but, later, one of the first questions she was asked was if she was prepared to die when Sass told her, “Lucky, you are coming with me.” Her answer: “As a young fighter pilot I was gung-ho, very eager, hair on fire, all thrust and no vector, but the events of that day really brought to bear how solemn a responsibility and what a privilege it is to serve my nation. Was I prepared to die? Yes, and that’s because I believe that there are more important things in this world than me.”

Now a retired Major from the Air Force with two combat tours in Iraq, she adores spreading a message of what she has learned. “It’s really about the courage we all have inside and we all have to give,” said Penney, 44, a senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a think tank in Virginia. “We all have a greater purpose than our own personal interests. and when we seek that purpose, we can serve our community and our family and our nation in so many ways.”

“What you do becomes who you are. It’s that old saying: Your actions become your habits, your habits become your character, and your character becomes your destiny.”

In September of 2013, Heather Penney wrote an essay on her 9/11 experience and its enlightenment in the Washington Post: Please savor it:

* * *


By Heather Penney, in the September 13, 2013, editions of the Washington Post

While our nation was commemorating September 11 on Wednesday, I had a very normal, everyday kind of day. I woke up, made coffee, ate my cereal while I made lunches, walked my kids to school, and went to work.

Last night was the typical focus on homework, mind-your-manners-at-the-dinner-table, boisterous melee over showers and teeth-brushing and pajamas, and tuck in bed. I didn’t attend any ceremonies, watch any specials on TV, and I didn’t listen to or read or YouTube any of the numerous services that I’m sure were being conducted all over the United States.

It wasn’t that I forgot. Far from that. I remember. That’s why a perfectly normal, vanilla, un-special day was the best way that I could think of to honor the events of that Tuesday.

Like everyone else, that morning began as a normal day for me. I made coffee, ate breakfast, put on my Nomex flight suit and went to work. It turned out to be anything but. [The words of Flight Cmdr Marc ‘Sass’ Sasseville:] “Lucky, you’re with me. Razin, you and Igor wait until you have missiles, then you get airborne. Let’s go!”

People have asked me, who ordered you to ram your aircraft? The answer is, no one. We knew what needed to be done. Once we had authorization from Vice President Cheney to get airborne, our duty was simple, clear and unspoken: to protect. And since we had no weapons capable of taking down an airliner, we’d do it by the only means we had.

We never found anything. And we weren’t the heroes that day. The passengers on Flight 93 were the heroes.

I’ve been called a hero for what I was willing to do. But I’m not special. I just happened to be standing at the Ops Counter when we finally got the call. The truth is, any one of us would have made the same decision, would have been willing to do exactly what I was prepared to do – and what the passengers on Flight 93 did do.

Why? Because there are things in this world that are more important than ourselves. Freedom. The Constitution of the United States. Our way of life. Mom, baseball, apple pie. These things and so many more that make us uniquely American. We belong to something greater than ourselves. As complex and diverse and discordant as it is, this thing, this idea called America binds us together in citizenship and community and brotherhood.

Remember? Think back to that day and the blur of days that followed. Is it the fear and horror that sticks in your mind? Or the sudden and acute awareness of community, of connection? Remember how in the days and weeks that followed, you noticed things and people that you hadn’t before? That you were more considerate, kind, that you didn’t take life and your relationships for granted?

In the days that followed, yes, there was the grief and outrage. There was also something far more precious: In the days the followed, we came together as Americans. It didn’t matter what color you were, what accent you had or religion or political party or immigration status or sexual orientation or tax bracket you were. What mattered is that you are an American, that we are all Americans, and that we share a bond of something far greater, far grander, than the small differences screeched about on cable news shows. And that thing – America, and what it means to be American – cannot be broken. It isn’t territorial, it isn’t just a place on a map. America is a set of ideals, beliefs, rule of law and opportunity, a grand and worthy experiment that binds us together by consent and aspiration – inspiration! – to be our better selves.

And despite the horror, we all woke up on September 12 and we were still Americans. I say these things not to diminish the personal losses or tragedies that many of us experienced on that day, but rather to remind all of us that we are part of something greater than ourselves. The events of 9/11 were intended to terrorize us and break our spirit. What they seem to have forgotten is that America was forged with hope and courage and fortitude, and that we have sacrificed much greater in endeavors far more trying. We are not a fearful people. We are not a weak people. We will go on and we will not be broken.

In the time since that clear blue morning, I’ve come to realize that heroism isn’t something unique or possessed by only a chosen few. That courage is there inside of each and every one of us. In the normal, perfectly average people that helped each other in the moments before the towers fell. The first responders. Neighbors and strangers coming together and lifting each other up. Those who sacrificed to undertake the dangerous and difficult task of cleaning up and rebuilding. How, in defiance of those who would threaten our way of life, how we all got up that next morning and went on.

Let us never forget. But perhaps more importantly, let us remember: That there are things in this world more important than ourselves. That we all belong to and are part of something greater than ourselves. That our connection is more important than our differences. That inside each and every one of us is that courage and heroism that we were blessed with witnessing that day. That these are not unique or extraordinary qualities, but instead are common and all around us every day.

This is why the most honorable thing I can do every September 11 – and every other day of the year – is to live my life as normally as I can.”

-- Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney

* * *

“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength. One is pushing down, the other is pulling up.” – Booker T. Washington.

Heather Penney
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