Pentagon Project: An Honor for Central Ohio Immigrant

Date: December 27, 2011

By: Jessica Wehrman

WASHINGTON — Delaware, Ohio, resident Sean Penney immigrated to America from Grenada in 1998, but in many ways, his is a uniquely American experience.He lived through 9/11 in New York City.He helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.And now he is immersed in a third experience, one he hopes to tell his grandchildren about: He and a construction team he supervises are laying slate on the roof of the Pentagon, which he views as “the most-important building in the world.”“I look at my life, and I tell my wife, I never even saw myself being in this country and doing what I’m doing now,” he said. “I tell her, ‘If I die now, I die happy.’  ”Penney, 35, who owns Penney Construction, a company that specializes in historical materials such as slate and copper, was first asked to work at the Pentagon in June, when a friend from whom he buys used slate referred him to Defense Department officials.At the time, crews already were working on a post-9/11 construction project aimed at modernizing the Pentagon to help defend it against a future attack or other disaster. The construction workers quickly realized they would need a slate specialist for the roofs.Enter Penney.At first, he put them off: He had plenty of work in Ohio, and he didn’t want to disappoint the customer base he’d been building since starting his construction firm three years ago.But the lure of working on the world’s largest office building lingered. Three months ago, he said yes.“It’s the Pentagon,” he said. “It was an honor for me to work here.”Now, he spends a few weeks at a time in the Washington, D.C., area, coming home on weekend trips to his wife and three children, who range in age from 3 to 12.By now, he said, working with slate is easy. But the rigors of the Pentagon job present a challenge he enjoys.“Everything is well done, and you have to know exactly what you’re doing,” he said. “Everything about this job is textbook. ... So, you have to be on top of everything you do here.”When Penney arrived from the West Indies in 1998, construction was hardly a vocation.Instead, he came to help an uncle who had fallen on rough times. But while working for his uncle’s construction firm, he met and fell in love with the woman who became his wife, Sarah. With her at his side, he became an American, adopting the country as his own.He also adopted a profession. He’d taken architecture classes in Grenada, but as he continued in construction work in New York, a job became a career.He was in construction and living in Brooklyn when the Twin Towers were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He remembers the dust that would fall on him, way over in Brooklyn — debris from the towers.“You never imagine anything like that could ever happen,” he said. “And then it did.”In 2004, he and Sarah moved to Ohio to be near her family. He continued his career in construction, and three years ago, he started his business.The specialized nature of what he does has helped him see the world in ways he’d never imagined. After Katrina struck in 2005, he went to New Orleans, part of a team that worked on the slate roof of a church damaged by the hurricane.But his job at the Pentagon, he said, has eclipsed even that experience.Construction, Penney said, “has changed my life.”“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he said. “This is all I want to do now. This is my love.”The Pentagon job isn’t without hardship: Penney misses his family. But still, he is living his own American dream.“I’m in the United States,” he said. “I own my own company. I’m working at the Pentagon. I got to vote for the U.S. 

president last time, and I get to vote again. It’s like a movie.” 

Photos By: Dayna Smith