The starting point for student/veteran classroom discussions in The 9:57 Project is the story of United Flight 93. The massive scope of 9/11 is a challenge to explain to young people not alive in 2001. When events on the fourth plane are deconstructed and deciphered, instructive moments of the hardest day imaginable emerge. Thanks to thirty-seven documented phone conversations between Flight 93 and the ground, we know its passengers had a situational awareness denied to passengers on the other planes. Armed with knowledge of the larger plot, after a vote among themselves, they decided to act.

These events are a story that must be told and retold to future generations with care, honor, and the constant remembrance that it’s a story we wish we didn’t have to tell at all, but it’s a story that must be told.

At 9:57 am, a group of ordinary people on Flight 93 steeled themselves to take extraordinary action. During the next six minutes, light struggled against dark. In an attempt to save themselves and others, they gave of themselves and in doing so delivered the US Capitol from destruction. These critical moments have left to all who take care to learn - a legacy of courage, teamwork, resilience, and even hope.

In these last minutes, these passengers and crew were no longer passive hostages on a missile to destroy. By their courage and initiative, these forty travelers became the first active combatants in an airborne war against the United States.* Combatants not by oath or order, but combatants by necessity.

As this battle was continued over the next twenty years by hundreds of thousands of veterans, more dark days came. Not on a scale as massive as 9/11, but dark as any night to those affected. The pre-dawn knock at the door by a uniformed Chaplain and casualty assistance officer, bearing the nightmare of all nightmares. The midmorning phone call bringing news of a friend injured in battle. The late afternoon Facebook post, publicly, obscenely, announcing how a close military friend lost a bewildering battle that raged in his mind. The narrative of the last two decades, without perspective, could easily set into a dark evening of despair.

It’s not an easy story. But we must remember the incredible goodness and hope planted in the early days of this conflict, nurtured by service, duty, and love over all these years. In the first hours, days, and months after the passengers and crew of Flight 93 fought back, neighbor helped neighbor. Young people enlisted, and old people gave blood. First responders raced from south to north and unity was in good standing. School children raised money to honor the lost as our flag was found flying tall in new places high and low. Red, white, blue, and bold, void of tribal shading. Old Glory declared our resolve, unity, and compassion, not cultural grievance. She demonstrated humble strength in the midst of hurt and tears.

Yes, those seeds of hope may seem dormant today, lost in the loud weeds of divisiveness, but the roots of goodness are still as deep and strong as ever, even if they remain unseen at times. Wind is unseen too, but it can blow down the most formidable structure. Empathy, service, and resilience don’t seem to attract much attention lately, but our nation’s stories, our veterans’ stories, all of our stories deserve attention. They carry strength in Category 5 form.

Last month I went to DeSoto Central High School, in Southaven, Mississippi, to share some 9:57 Project Courage, Resilience, and Teamwork with a group of juniors for a couple of hours. Teacher Terry Boler contacted us via our website to arrange a visit. When I met Terry as I signed in at the front office, she said “I know someone who knows someone you know.” I happen to have a friend who grew up with a previous principal of this school, so I thought I knew who she was talking about.

Terry had someone else in mind. She took me to the office of the school nurse, Ellen, who warmly introduced herself and explained that her husband, Sid, now an airline pilot, had been in the Air Force, and had flown cargo planes with Flight 93 First Officer Leroy Homer. They had lived down the street from the Homers at Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

Ellen went on to tell me about when she and Sid would be out walking their newborn and Leroy and his wife would greet them. I immediately thought of having met Leroy’s mother and sister years ago at a Flight 93 Memorial Ceremony. I knew Leroy had soloed at age 16. Just like Flight 93 Captain Jason Dahl. Just like me. Instantly I felt the kinship that aviation so often imparts. (Please visit and support the Leroy W. Homer, Jr. Foundation which awards private pilot scholarships to young people aged 16-23).

Suddenly, I wasn’t telling the Flight 93 story, a living memory from the past was educating me about the life of a Flight 93 crewmember. Leroy was not a name on a memorial, he was a military friend of the lady standing in front of me, a spouse who had served in an Air Force family. Leroy felt like a fellow veteran, because he was, just like any one of the former military pilots I fly with now at a major commercial airline. For the briefest of moments, Leroy seemed like another one of my buddies.

As I talked with Ellen, I imagined a smile on Leroy’s face, just as any Dad would smile seeing friends walking a baby on an evening stroll. I instantly wished, again, that we didn’t have to share this story at all.

Later that day, I had the pleasure of meeting Sid when he showed up at the school to bring his wife lunch. We talked a little shop. Weeks later, when I consulted Ellen to clarify the details of all this, she was quick to be respectful and make the story about Leroy and not her family, adding: “God gave us the privilege of crossing paths with an EXTRAORDINARY ‘ordinary’ man. When Sid was deployed after 911 - he had Leroy on his mind and heart as part of his ‘why.'”

We have a sacred responsibility to share Leroy’s story and the story of all the others who served on 9/11 and after. On the darkest of days, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 showed us the incredible light in all of us, as they battled the darkness to make it home. We must remember what they did, and how they lived. We owe them nothing less than to do our best each day in our own homes, schools, and communities, model it for our kids, and do it with a smile. Just like a proud Dad strolling with his newborn. Just like an extraordinary ordinary man smiling at us from the pages of history.

*In addition to the 37 Americans on board, three were citizens of other nations: Toshiya Kuge of Japan, Christian Adams of Germany, and Alan Beaven of New Zealand.

Pictured: Ellen with Sid while he attended US Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training