Heather Penney, the 9/11 fighter pilot, says celebrating normalcy is a way to honor heroes

September 13, 2013

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. 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.

SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments