OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Every year on Sept. 11, the words “never forget” are repeated. For one man from Blue Springs, Missouri, they’re more than words. “Never forget” has become Jeff Penfield’s mission in life.
Penfield was an active duty member of the Navy when terrorists attacked in 2001. He retired in 2016 as a 2-star rear admiral. The fighter pilot was already preparing for a deployment, but knew his assignment would change as a result of the attacks.
“That just changed everything for everybody,” Penfield said. “It changed everything for the squadron and what our deployment was going to look like, everything for the Navy, and every citizen in the U.S., and I think you could say around the world. A life-changing event for sure.”
Penfield first wrote the phrase “never forget” in 2002 when writing a letter to the families of 15 firefighters from one FDNY company killed on 9/11. Penfield was on an aircraft carrier preparing to fly into Afghanistan on a mission.
Mutual connections linked him with Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 in New York City. That company lost more firefighters than any other in New York on 9/11.
“To us, [the families of deceased firefighters and their surviving company members] represented the 343 firefighters and [more than] 2,000 people who died in the towers and Pentagon and Pennsylvania,” Penfield said. “It brought a human element to what we were doing. It brought a face to what we were doing.”
What Penfield didn’t expect was how the firehouse would respond. Throughout his deployment, the firehouse and those 15 families sent Penfield and his squadron care packages, badges, patches, pictures, cookies, FDNY t-shirts and so much more.
“Through their darkest days, they found something in their hearts to to turn that to support us. It just opened up these floodgates,” Penfield said. “This ‘lovesfest’ started.”
The “lovefest” solidified when Penfield and his squadron visited the firehouse upon their return from Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003.
“I can’t believe what [military members] do. They give their lives. My job is dangerous, but I’m not at war with somebody,” said retired FDNY Lt. Bob Jackson, who worked on Engine 54.
A mutual respect led to instant friendship. Every year since 2003 (except 2020 due to COVID-19), Penfield and many of his Navy squad members return to New York City to participate in a ceremony honoring the firefighters lost in duty.
“It’s so important to us that we still support you and we still think of you and we still remember you,” Penfield said.
His trips over the years have allowed him to watch families grow up. Kiersten Haub was only 16 months old when her father, Michael Haub, died responding to the twin towers.
“I really wish that I had some part of my dad to hold on to in a memory way, but I keep him alive in different ways, and you know I always know he's with me,” Kiersten said.
She is grateful for men such as Penfield and Jackson who recognize her father’s sacrifice and share stories about his life. She’s also adopted “never forget” as a life motto.
“With the new generations to come, it is so important that we continue to remember and we continue to teach,” she pointed out.
“I tell people the first time I went to New York, I was a tourist. The second time I was meeting some friends. Now I go to New York and I see my brothers,” Penfield said.
He boarded a commercial plane last week and will be in Midtown Manhattan for the annual 9/11 ceremony this weekend with the firehouse he’s grown to be a part of.
“We made that commitment in 2002 that we’d never forget, and 19 years later from making that commitment, 20 years from 9/11, we go back and we do this with them,” Penfield said.
He said he hopes his story inspires others to never forget.