Our inaugural newsletter below features a post by former Army Aviator and 9:57 Project co-founder John Hamilton. In the post, John details how the story of Flight 93 and subsequent work with the 9:57 Project has changed his life for the better. Subscribe to our newsletter by visiting the957project.org/subscribe.
PART 1: THE STORY OF UNITED FLIGHT 93
In many of these newsletters we will profile a 9:57 Project veteran. These men and women with post 9-11 combat experience engage students on topics of service, courage, and resilience. This first profile will be a bit unique from subsequent ones. I am telling my story, not so much on the “who and what” of my service, but the “why?” Why I think the 9:57 Project is so very important. It starts with a national story.
Of the four planes commandeered on September 11th, the first three crashed into the financial and military centers of America. The last one, United Flight 93, lifted off late under the skilled control of pilots Jason Dahl and Leroy Homer. Forty-six minutes into the flight, Captain Dahl and First Officer Homer, a veteran of Desert Storm, became instant combatants in a war that rapidly and violently consumed their flight deck. Bent on destruction, the same hands that took Jason and Leroy from us abruptly ham-fisted the airliner towards the country’s political center, Washington D.C.
Passengers and crew-members in the back of this ad-hoc missile made phone calls to the ground. Because of Flight 93’s delayed departure, friends and family members of the passengers and crew became sources of information, having seen more than forty-five minutes of the New York destruction on TV. The realization was obvious; this was no “normal” highjacking, with divert destinations and demands. The forty on Flight 93 could remain compliant captives on an airborne bomb, or they could take action.
On the most tragic day of the young century, we know that this extraordinary group of people summoned the courage to do what they had to do. A few gathered information. Some prayed. Amazingly, a group voted on a course of action. Another fashioned makeshift weapons. Others remained on those old GTE airphones, telling family, “I love you.” Passenger Tom Burnett told his wife, Deena, “Don’t worry, we’re going to do something.” Finally, at 9:57 AM, the passengers and crew charged the cockpit, making a move to wrestle back the airplane controls, the trajectory of their lives, and the history of this country. Right before the counter-attack, Verizon Airfone call center supervisor Lisa Jefferson heard passenger Todd Beamer say, “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s Roll.”
All told, no doubt they simply wanted to go home. I wish we didn’t know their names, but we do, and we must ensure that future generations know them too. And not just the names, but the story. We must honor their action and courage, and the lives they lived prior to the day that made them historic figures. These folks didn’t wake up on 9-11 with national heroism suddenly in their DNA. They were already extraordinary and exceptional people - young and old, full of promise and accomplished leaders who loved their families. Their lives and efforts are a shining example of the best of humanity on the darkest of days.
The 9:57 Project tells this and other uplifting stories from September 11th and the years that followed. Since 2014, we have brought transformative educational experiences to high school classrooms in Virginia and Washington, D.C. by placing veterans in small group settings who tell these true tales. We’ve enabled powerful conversations between post 9-11 combat veterans and students about September 11th. In doing so we teach history with objective in-person testimony and factual evidence. We talk about the compassion of action, when people do what they can - or what they must.
And it's no stretch to say that we’ve changed lives. We’ve changed at least two, a young man named Isaiah - who before 2014 didn’t celebrate his September 11th birthday - and mine.
On the morning of September 11th, I happened to be at home. My unit, an Attack Helicopter Company of the 101st Airborne Division had flown a night training mission the evening prior, and we were scheduled to do another one that night. As the events played out on my TV, I watched just as everyone else did. Anyone alive and of age that day can relate many vivid details of how they learned of the attacks. I specifically recall the exact moment that a report came in about a crash in Pennsylvania. I also remember the first report that this flight seemed to have been brought down short of its target because of the heroic actions of those on board.
From the first moments that I heard about Flight 93, I was astonished and so personally thankful for those everyday folks who accomplished what our entire military war machine could not. They stopped the madness of the day. When really, in ultimate heroic irony, humbly, poignantly, they weren’t really trying to do anything but get home and hug their families. A day or two later, as we all tried to make sense of the overwhelming events of the week I recall standing at the doors of my Brigade Headquarters as I began an evening shift as the staff duty officer. I thought at that moment - with all of this incredibly capable military equipment, most of it developed as a response to a decades-long Cold War now ten years in the past - that the multi-million dollar Apache Attack Helicopter I flew, Fighter Wings, Aircraft Carriers - these were all essentially useless in protecting America that day.
But standing in that gap, charging down the aisle, were the everyday heroes on Flight 93, who threw themselves upon an enemy force that my friends and I would be fighting ourselves in a few short months. No less significant than the events on another Pennsylvania field, in Gettysburg, their actions will be long remembered for a sacrifice that turned the tide of the opening battle of a much longer war that still smolders today twenty years later. Yes, their actions inspired me, even in those first hours and days of this new type of war. My war.
PART 2: MY DEPLOYMENTS
A few weeks before 9-11, I had turned down promotion and was getting out of the Army to become an airline pilot. Normally when one turns down promotion, the clock starts ticking, and the Army wants you gone. In my case, I had additional time I owed because I received training as an Apache Pilot a couple of years before, which committed me to March of the next year when I would find a regional airline job and continue my service as an Army Aviator in the National Guard.
Somehow, some way, I felt in my gut that my unit would be one of the first in the action we called “Operation Enduring Freedom.” I was disconsolate at the thought that I would leave the Army just as my friends went to fight for those in New York, Virginia, and on Flight 93. After some internal tension about all this, I finally approached my Battalion Commander and told him that I wanted to go to Afghanistan if the rest of the Battalion went to augment a portion of it already there. This occurred at a Super Bowl Party of all places, and although I can’t remember who played in the game, I recall the U2 show at halftime and their tribute to the fallen of 9-11. Somehow the “old man”, what we often called the Commander, got an exception to policy that allowed me to stay in the Army way beyond my declination of promotion.
The entire Battalion, including me, was deployed to Afghanistan within a month. By the first anniversary of 9-11, we were back home. That deployment caused a shift, a permanent change in the arc of my life. Some bad, some good, and all of it, just like anything, so dependent on the attitude I approached it with.
I had a good deployment. I flew a couple hundred hours, but I always say I only experienced real combat for about 45 minutes. That’s enough I guess. In actuality, it was all a pretty positive event, except for this - two buddies, Stu Contant (also a 9:57 Project veteran volunteer) and Manny Pierre, both phenomenal dudes, were hurt badly in a helicopter crash. We also had a heartbreaking loss of Special Operations personnel on March 4th, 2002.
But when I returned home, things were different. Within six months, all the pals I’d been with in Afghanistan were in Iraq and I wasn’t. This caused me no small amount of angst. Although I didn’t worry about them, I acknowledged the guilt I knew I would feel in the unlikely event something happened to one of them.
As I flew in the Guard, attending the Apache Instructor Pilot course at Fort Rucker, Alabama, such notions were an afterthought; we were invincible after all. That was all until my former Company Commander, Captain Jason Smith, sustained a gunshot wound to the face during a mission. Not only was Captain Smith my old boss, but he and I were also a combat crew, flying often together. Then I worried and wished I was there even more. I taped all the Iraq news coverage for them (we still had VCRs back then) and saved newspapers to give to them when they came home. I penned letters to every pilot in the unit. I wrote my pal Jimmy Morrow, Jason’s new Apache back-seater, that if he let my front-seater get shot in the face again “I’d kick his a**.” Jason made a full recovery in theater.
Jason and Jimmy are now 9:57 Project veteran volunteers. Jimmy did five combat deployments, received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and once assisted a unit during a battle where a soldier demonstrated valor that resulted in a Medal of Honor award. For his part, Jimmy went to the White House Ceremony. As for Jason, his distinguished career has led him from the battlefield to the Coast Guard where he has saved countless lives, to Harvard, and then as an officer assigned to the Senate and White House as a National Security Expert. You’ll hear more about these two in later profiles.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but not being in Iraq with my friends affected me tremendously, even shaping how I viewed the entirety of my service. I felt I had really let them and my country down. In 2006, I finally made it to Iraq, now as an Army Airplane Pilot, deployed to Kuwait as part of the Tennessee National Guard. By this time, my old Battalion was back to Iraq a second time. This was its third deployment in four years and some of the members of the unit had gone all three times. I landed at Balad Air Base and made my way to the Battalion area, eating Burger King with one of the guys, Tim Burke. Somehow, just being there with Tim made things better for me to an extent; at least now I had served in Iraq too. The next time I saw Tim was when I ran into him at Disneyland in California a couple of years later. Talk about random occurrences, but as someone strongly suggested to me once at the Flight 93 National Memorial, there is no such thing as a random occurrence.
This second deployment came at a price. My wife and I were expecting, with a due date just a few days after the start of my time overseas. The day my only child was born was extraordinarily long, since I began it on an airliner chasing the sun across the Atlantic Ocean, getting to the hospital within an hour after her arrival. Since she was born by C-section, major surgery, a Red Cross message announcing the procedure meant my command allowed me to come home for the birth. This is not always the case.
I was home for a week, then went back to the Middle East, leaving my wife and new baby for six months. When I returned home, things were different again. Maybe I’m just not good at staying married, ours broke up within a few years. (My wife was very supportive of my deployment, she was great about it all. It was the post-deployment readjustment that was tough). As I dealt with this new reality, the tenth anniversary of September 11th approached.
During the week of the anniversary, I remember telling my Mom that I didn’t want to see any coverage of 9-11. Here we were, years later, still at war. What did we have to show for it? We hadn’t had another major attack, which is hugely significant, but the country was starting to show the cultural fissures that have cracked wide open today. In the days after 9-11, all we heard and saw was “United We Stand.” We were bruised in those days, but we all took time and care for our neighbors and countrymen. And two deployments had drastically impacted my personal life. What was it all for and about? Why didn’t we have more to show for what we’d done? So there would be no 9-11 observation for me. I didn’t need a reminder of how tough all this had been for me and for so many others.
Then something changed. I read a very long Washington Post page-one article (I still have the paper) about the cross formed by steel beams of the World Trade Center found at Ground Zero. Prior to seeing the paper that morning, I had only a vague recollection of hearing the cross story. As I sat in Starbucks, I read the entire story again and had an instant transformation in my attitude about the upcoming tenth anniversary of September 11th. The idea that people were inspired to persevere by a symbol of hope really shook me out of my personal despair. I realized I had a lot to be thankful about, including the fact I was allowed to serve during our country’s most trying time. It had been an honor to do so, and I determined that far from avoiding the September 11th memorials on TV, I would go to one of them. I knew tickets to the Ground Zero and the Pentagon events would be hard to come by (I had received a couple a few years before, but duty obligations precluded my attendance), and for no other reason than I knew there would be ample room for me, I decided to go to the Flight 93 Memorial on September 11th, 2011.
I could write a book about that trip, but let’s just say, the original feelings of thankfulness for the sacrifice of those aboard Flight 93 I had ten years prior was augmented by an Army Aviator’s sense of tactical timing and geography. I had never studied the actual trajectory or timeline of the events like I did in preparation for my trip to Pennsylvania. Living just outside Washington, D.C. at the time, I arose early and drove several hours to the memorial. I was astounded by the fact that Flight 93 would have covered that distance in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes until the most likely destruction of the U.S. Capitol and countless more Americans. Another Ground Zero.
PART 3: HOW THE 9:57 PROJECT HAS CHANGED MY LIFE FOR THE BETTER
A couple of years later I made a good friend in a church group, Peter Findler. For a while Pete was on to me about coming to speak to his students in his class about “the service.” We finally made arrangements to visit. I gave a presentation that detailed my service experiences. By happenstance, this presentation occurred on the day he was teaching about September 11th. I was asked to participate in the follow-on discussions that day, and this unforeseen event was the basis for the dynamic experience that the 9:57 Project now aims to replicate in as many schools as we can.
Peter challenged me after my first school visit. Some of the kids didn’t understand 9-11 at all. They had been led to believe certain narratives that are demonstrably false. My immediate attitude was, “my friends and I didn’t go fight in a war so that kids wouldn’t even know what we were fighting for.” And what were we fighting for? There are many answers to that, but one thing is for sure, we were fighting for those we lost on Flight 93, and in New York and Virginia. We had to at least get that straight. I asked, “What are these kids thinking?”, and Pete responded, “they don’t know what to think.” So we determined we had to do something. My friends and I had served, and now we had to bear witness to what we had seen and done, so that future generations get the story straight.
The genesis of this project occurred very organically. The first trip to the Flight 93 Memorial was a success, the kids learned something and had fun. A new friend found out what we were doing and invited Todd Beamer’s mom and dad, David and Peggy, to this first event. There was a lot of laughter and smiles and meaning around such difficult topics. Peter and I were a bit thrown off by some of this as we didn’t realize at the time what we were on to, such as why this story somehow gave kids hope and a sense of optimism.
Another pleasant and unexpected surprise occurred on the first 9:57 Project trip to Shanksville. I asked several military friends I had served with to help by attending as discussion facilitators, relating their experiences and attitudes about 9-11. Some came in from out of town and we all had dinner the night prior to the first event. It was like old times. Great fun. The next morning (some of the guys had stayed at my place) we got up at 4 AM and got ready for our new mission. It was the precise same feeling I had back in the field surrounded by all the guys (that also includes ladies who were on the team) when we were in the big field tent getting ready to go fly. Except now our mission was to bear witness to the past and educate the future. A mission is a mission.
During this time, when we were putting all this together, I attended a dinner where the guest speaker was retired Army Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) John McDaniel, founder of Wounded Warriors in Action, a nonprofit that makes world-class outdoor sporting events available to Purple Heart recipients. At some point that evening, LTC McDaniel and I were in a one-on-one conversation, and I attempted to relay this very nascent idea that eventually became the 9:57 Project. I was surprised at how interested he became in what I was struggling at the time to articulate. Pete and I really didn’t quite understand what we were undertaking or the way ahead. LTC McDaniel listened intently, encouraging me in the new endeavor. He left me with this admonition on the whole matter: you are going to retire soon, and “YOU WILL NEED A MISSION.”
I had never heard this kind of thing before. Now, of course, I realize we all need a purpose in life, not just veterans, but everyone. It can come in various forms, care for our families, our friends, sports, you name it. But a veteran, he or she has been trained to thrive when they have additional tasks. My most important and joyful mission is being a Dad, but educating kids about the citizen heroes of flight 93 brings me immense joy too.
And that is how the 9:57 Project has changed my life. It has given me a new mission: to tell the heroic stories of 9-11. The ones about the boat captains who evacuated Manhattan, the air traffic controllers who safely brought down every plane in the sky, the firemen and police officers who gave of themselves for others. The list goes on and on. And most critically, I may have missed the mission to Iraq with my company from the 101st, but now we’re on a new mission, and many of those guys are right here on it. I cannot possibly tell you how meaningful that is.
The people who planned the attacks of September 11th thought they were bringing terror to our streets. And they did, for a time. But the last thing they envisioned - talk of 9-11 bringing courage to the young people in classrooms of the United States - is now taking place. And it will, for decades to come. We get the final say on this.
And the final word of my own veteran profile is thankfulness. It all started in my childhood. I wanted to serve because my Dad served, as his dad did before him. When I was growing up, my grandmother, an educator, told me stories about World War II, the Great Depression, JFK, and FDR. My teachers and community imbued me with a love of country. My home town held an event every July 4th, “The Spirit of America Festival.” One year President Reagan even came. My love of country would have existed with or without service in uniform. I thought that’s just what one did, that this great land of ours was special because we held each of our countrymen as neighbor, brother or sister; no better than our friends in other nations, but closest to our hearts, because we are all here, on this team doing this together, with common values and ideas. That’s how I was raised. Most importantly, while I view my service as a high privilege, I have never believed that those of us in uniform have the market cornered on love of country.
Somehow, many times through luck, I had an amazing career. I enlisted in the Army and became a pilot. Through chance, I found myself in one of the most illustrious Army Divisions, the 101st, during a surprise attack on the United States. Those I went to war with are now life-long friends - family even. Having retired from service, I’m finally an airline pilot, earning a good living flying jet airplanes, perhaps the ultimate symbol of our freedom.
On September 11th, those airplanes were turned into weapons, but thirty-seven Americans, one Japanese citizen, a German, and a New Zealander, took a stand and moved to take back one of those planes. In doing so they demonstrated that in every American, in every human, is perhaps the most remarkable stuff imaginable: amazing courage, strength, and inspiration. They tried to order the chaos, and in a way, they did, trading their lives for it. A hurtling missile toward our capital city found its final destination in a quiet field of honor where school kids, veterans, and all of our citizens will come to see their names written on a wall next to their solemn resting place. No ordinary memorial - a battlefield where citizens, not professionals, did the fighting.
Those forty were the very first minutemen soldiers in a new war. They weren’t wearing a uniform and they weren’t well-armed. All they had was information and a realization that they had to take a stand. They gave our nation a different future, one of hope. I am honored to share their story. That's our mission, and I ask you to help us with it. United Flight 93. United We Stand, the United States of America.
From left to right: Jason Smith, Mike Brown, Sammy Bennett, and Jimmy Morrow at the memorial service for fellow C-Company officer and soldier Kevin Keaton.