Sunday, September 11, 2011

First Responder: The Untold Story of a True American Hero

As the 10th anniversary of the events of September 11th draws near, I wanted to make note of this milestone by putting my thoughts down on paper, something I’ve refrained from doing until now. As a former member of the military, and one who has always felt a deep and abiding love for this country, and what it stands for, the events of that terrible day affected me in a way I didn’t think possible. The initial and inevitable sense of unmitigated and raw anger which I first felt, gave way to a profound sense of grief that closed in on me like a dark cloud, a cloud that has prevented me from truly coming to terms with the magnitude of the events of that day.

Except for viewing, initially, the news reports those first few days, I’ve refrained from watching the footage over the past number of years, because the thought of doing so brings back remnants of that malevolent cloud that chokes me with an almost debilitating sadness. I still haven’t been able to watch the movie they made about Flight 93, as many times as I’ve felt that I should, in honor of those forty American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice.

But somehow, even though I never went out of my way to seek out the news surrounding the events as they unfolded that clear, sunny Tuesday morning, in the weeks and months that followed, I was sure I had heard, in one way or another, most of the stories that circulated, concerning the timelines, persons and circumstances that have now become engraved in our national consciousness. When first I decided to write something, to mark this anniversary, I was at a loss as to what exactly, or possibly, I could say or relate, that hasn’t already been chewed and regurgitated hundreds, if not thousands of times, by talking heads of major news outlets, or mind numbing politicians, trying to sound patriotic, while stumping for votes for their next election.

And then, tonight, a few scant hours before the dawn of this 10th year remembrance, while flipping through the channels on TV, I came across the most remarkable interview, done just about a month ago. It was remarkable for a great many reasons, not least of all because it was the first time I had ever heard the story related, and it was being told by the very person who experienced it, a very remarkable person indeed, who, until now, was totally unknown to me, and whom I have to assume is also unknown to most people.

This person’s name is Major Heather Penney, of the District of Columbia, Air National Guard. On September 11th, 2001, then First Lieutenant Penney, call sign “Lucky,” was one of two F-16 fighter pilots who became the ultimate first responders that fateful fall morning. Shortly after the two inbound airliners slammed into the twin towers in New York, and immediately after the third commercial jet flew straight into the Pentagon, Penney, flying as wingman for Colonel Marc Sasseville, was ordered to take off immediately to meet the threat of the now fourth inbound aircraft, United Fight 93, headed for another Washington target, almost certainly the Capital building.

As remarkable as this story is, what makes it even more poignant is that because the threat of an attack on American soil was seen as such a remote possibility at the time, the 121st fighter squadron at Andrews Air Force base, outside Washington, had no fully-armed fighter jets on standby. The F-16’s that Penney and Sasseville jumped into, and immediately took off in, barely giving the flight mechanics time to remove the flight deck safety pins from various parts of the aircraft, doing it literally as they were taxing down the runway, were only equipped with 105 lead nosed bullets and no other armament of any kind. The two remaining F-16’s left on the ground we’re to be armed with AIM 9 heat seeking missiles, but they first had to be secured from an ammo dump far from the flight line.

While suiting up, and after having received orders to take out any inbound aircraft that posed a threat to Washington, D.C., Penny and Sasseville looked at each other and immediately formulated their plan. They knew they wouldn’t be able to shoot down the jumbo jet with the small amount of lead nosed ammunition they would have on board, so Colonel Sasseville said he’d ram the cockpit, and Penney agreed she’d ram the tail of the inbound airliner. For a few seconds, Penney recounted, she wondered if it would be possible to eject before ramming her fighter jet into the aircraft, but immediately realized she wouldn’t be able to guarantee a solid hit, and promptly dismissed the idea. She resolved herself to the fact that this take off would probably be her last.

We all know now that Flight 93 never reached Washington, as forty heroic passengers assaulted the hijackers in the cockpit and crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania. But, the F-16 pilots didn’t learn of the aircraft's fate until later that afternoon, continuing to fly air cover for most of the day, awaiting potentially hostile, inbound aircraft, and the possibility they would have to give their lives to protect our nation’s capital. Later, after the immediate threat of inbound aircraft was not realized, and after having landed and refitted with a full compliment of armament, including air to air missiles, Penney was one of the pilots who escorted Air Force One, with President Bush on board, back to Andrews Air Force Base, in Washington.

Major Penney, now a mother of two little girls, then seeing the smoke billowing from the wreckage of the Pentagon shortly after take off, remembers flying low over the survivors, while using full after burners, before starting her sweep to the Northwest, to let them know she was there and that no one else would enter the airspace she now protected, to hurt them further. When asked later what were the emotions she was feeling at the time, said she was absorbed with the urgent job at hand and had no time for emotions. "It wasn't so much that I kept my emotions in check. It was that they didn't even exist," she said. "There was significant adrenaline. It was really just, dear God please don't let me screw up."

Hearing for the first time the story of Major Penney and her fellow pilots, a story mostly untold till now, I find that dark cloud of despair I’ve felt in the past, slowly lifted, and with it a renewed sense of pride and honor in the 911 generation, one that saw 2.5 million of its members sign up for military duty, in the wake of the turmoil that surrounded this nation ten years ago, with thousands of these brave Americans since having given the last full measure of devotion, and with tens of thousands also having been wounded and maimed.

I pray that the sacrifices these Americans have suffered will never be forgotten, whether it be the innocent lives of people who were going about their daily routine, or the more than 400 first responders who rushed into harms way and paid the ultimate price, or the forty brave passengers who refused to let their plane be an instrument of terror, or the F-16 pilots like Major Penney who ensured the safety of our seat of government in this country by being willing to offer her life in exchange, or the millions of members of this nation’s military and armed forces, who are a shining beacon of hope to the dark corners of the world where freedom fights for a foothold.

The evil that visited us that terrible day ten years past, crashed planes, crumbled buildings and murdered innocents. But, as horrific as the damage was they did inflict, they failed in their task to crash, crumble or murder the spirit of this nation. That resides in the memory of our loved ones lost and in the hearts of its remaining citizens, and with it the resolve to ensure that this particular evil will never triumph, but rather eventually will breathe its last.

-Jim Giunta

To watch the full one hour C-SPAN interview with Maj. Penney, click the link below and then the link on the right side of the page called "Complete File" under the Video Playlist heading:

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