John J. Cummings '89

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, naval aviator J.J. Cummings ’89 and his family were a week away from a regularly scheduled deployment aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

For this Navy family — J.J., wife Sara Hagan Cummings ’89, and two daughters — the hectic week before deployment tends to be “a flail.” And, adds Sara, “there’s typically a last-minute run to BJ’s for a 20-pack of Irish Spring and Mennen Speed Stick.”

Back in 2001, happy excitement was in the air too, as older daughter Mackenzie was turning 4 in a couple days. But everything about the deployment turned irregular that morning.

"I love our country and I love my job, but it's the support of my family that lets me serve," says J.J. Cummings '89. with wife Sara Hagan Cummings '89, older daughter MacKenzie, younger daughter Delaney, and infant son James.

“I was watching the Today show, and I saw the fire on the first tower,” J.J. remembers. “Then I watched the second plane fly in. I knew it was an attack.”
Five years later, J.J. Cummings easily recalls the dominant emotion of that moment. “Anger. I wanted to leave on deployment that day, knowing full well that I was going to go and make someone pay.”

Deployment went as scheduled, but instead of the Mediterranean Sea, the Theodore Roosevelt and Cummings’ squadron, the Diamondbacks, sailed directly to the northern Arabian Sea. “It was surreal,” Cummings says, the feeling that “this is it: 10 years of waiting for this moment. We knew we were going to go and drop bombs and take care of business. The purpose was very clear: Go and kill the people that attacked our country.”

From October 2001 to April 2002, Lt. Cmdr. Cummings, nicknamed “Yank,” flew his F-14 in combat missions over Afghanistan, attacking suspected Taliban and al-Qaida strongholds. “Never having dropped a live bomb in combat, to do that extensively for five months was an unbelievable experience,” he says.

Cummings knew two people on United Flight 175, Peter Goodrich ’89 and a former Navy squadron mate, Brian “Moose” Sweeney. “The first bomb I dropped, on Mazar-e Sharif, had Peter Goodrich’s name on it,” Cummings says. “The second, over Bagram Air Base, had Moose Sweeney’s name on it.”

Writing names on bombs “wasn’t about revenge or motivation — I had plenty of that,” he continues. “It was about doing something personal in response to their deaths, to their murder. I wanted the families to know that someone halfway across the world, over the very place where these attacks originated, was thinking of them and their great loss.”

Currently a NATO staff officer, Cummings will return to flying, this time an F-18F Super Hornet, as executive officer of Strike Fighter Squadron 11, the Red Rippers, in 2007. He wants to be back in the thick of things even if that means leaving a son behind — James Roger was born March 14, 2006 — in addition to Sara and the girls.

“Our purpose was defined for us,” he says. “I love what I do. It’s challenging, rewarding, and serves a greater cause. That’s the bottom line, the cause — the American way of life.”