I am a writer. At this moment I am at the mercy of a story capable of vacuuming the soul. It is bigger than I am. I need help. "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be alway acceptable in Thy sight -- O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer." Psalm 19:14
Johnny Spann is on the phone with me from his real estate office in Winfield, Alabama. It's a routine day for him, except that November 25 is nearing. This is the date of his son's death at the hands of enraged Taliban fighters in a prison in Afghanistan -- ten years ago. This searing memory, he tells me, will always be fresh. Johnny has gone out to his car in the parking lot to use his cell phone, assuring privacy as we talk.
He pauses, "No, the tenth anniversary is not special at all."
Mike's death in 2001 set off an improbable quest by the intrepid Alabama native to find out how his son died and why. It's a heartbreaking -- and heroic -- tale of a father's fierce love for a son who put his life on the line for America's freedom, and paid the ultimate price.
Mike's youth -- and his promise
Johnny Micheal Spann grew up in Winfield, Alabama, a town of about 4,500 people. His family remembers Michael to be a very ambitious, patriotic, young man who loved his family very much. Mike, always interested in history, spent a lot of time reading history books and encyclopedias. He was always challenging himself to do more.
At age 17 he earned his Private Pilots Licenses and later became a certified rescue diver and parachutists. Micheal prided himself in being a very disciplined person. Family and Friends remembered Micheal saying he would gladly give his life for his family, friends, or even his country.
Michael’s sisters, Tonya Ingram and Tammy Dunavant, say he was very protective of them, and they remember all the fun they enjoyed growing up with him in their home in Winfield. Tonya and Tammy explained, “We always knew he was there for us, even till his death.”
Micheal was not big when he was in high school, standing about 5 ‘10” and weighing in at 160 pounds. As a wide receiver and a running back he was muscular and tough.
“He was always giving 120 percent of everything he had, “said his coach, Joe Hubert. "Part of that spirit came from the teachings he had at home. His father and mother encouraged and nurtured Mike and his two younger sisters to be all they could be."
Life in Winfield, Alabama revolved around family, church, duty, working at the family business, and school activities, and Mike Spann embraced them all. A favorite childhood picture shows him sitting on the barrel of a tank.
Playing soldier wasn’t the only thing on Mike’s mind as a young boy. He prayed every Sunday with his family at the Church of Christ and enjoyed the things that all young American boys enjoy. At 16 he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He would be a marine and then serve in the FBI or the CIA.
“Mike was probably the only 16-year-old boy in Winfield, Alabama who knew exactly what he was going to do, “said Dale Weeks, a school friend who said that he did not place a lot of faith in the talk of most teenagers. “But with Mike, you knew, you just knew,” he continued.
Heading for his future
After graduating from Winfield High School, Mike headed for college at Auburn University. While at Auburn he joined the Marine Corps Reserve in December of 1991. After earning a degree in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement in 1992 he enrolled in Officers Training School in Quantico, Virginia. He soon became an artillery expert with a specializing in how to direct air and naval firepower toward the enemy on the ground. By 1996, he was a Captain in command of 25 or more Marines.
“He was a tough guy among tough guys, “ said Major Tray J. Ardese, who served with him at Camp Lejune.
“He didn’t slack off, ever,” said Christopher T. Graves, another fellow Marine.
Reaching his goals
By 1999 Mike was ready to try something new. He loved the Marines but he had never seen action, and he felt the endless training should not be an end in itself.
Mike considered a number of options but settled on the CIA, which had a paramilitary unit within its Directorate of Operations. The CIA application asked each applicant to describe themselves. Mike wrote the following: (Excerpts)
I describe myself as an ordinary person, with a few God-given talents and ample self-confidence that has endeavored to accomplish extraordinary things. I am a dreamer with lofty goals, taking an optimistic outlook on any situation.
I have an insatiable drive to do the best I can, looking for a challenge in everything, and working to meet that challenge. I am always determined and positive in my approach to anything in life. I believe in God and have hope in all things, even when it is as bad as it gets.
I believe in my country and am very patriotic in my views and think it is important for my family to feel the same. I believe in the meaning of honor and integrity, constantly pursuing them personally and professionally.
My family is extremely important to me and I work to be a good father that looks out for my children’s well being and future, developing in them strong Christian values, and positive self-image.
I am a well-rounded military officer having acquired professional experience in areas such as combined arms operations, logistics, and communications through several assignments throughout the world. As a combat arms officer, I have maintained knowledge and proficiency of several types of weapon systems through hand of training and formal schools. Possessing above average proficiency as a writer, I have served as a public affairs officer and have written numerous education documents.
In conclusion, I am a person with a strong set of values that works at living my life according to a strong moral code. I know myself completely and have every confidence in my abilities to successfully accomplish anything I pursue in life.
Mission in Afghanistan
Shortly before he left for Afghanistan only a few short days before he died, Johnny Micheal Spann sent an Email to his parents and sisters in reproach to a liberal article that was forwarded to him.
“What everyone needs to understand is these people hate you,“ wrote Mike, “they hate you because you are an American. Everyone out there spewing the left wing liberal rhetoric claiming we brought it all on ourselves because of our policy on the middle east." Here's Mike’s personal favorite liberal quote, "Retaliation will only bring more attacks."
He continued: "Should we sit in the corner and be quiet? We were attacked last week by a foreign power. We are at war. Many Americans need to wake up and realize the fact. Somebody wants to destroy what we have and we have to defend against that.
"Who cares what other countries are saying, they’re not even democratic governments. We must respond to this or run the risk of ceasing to be the world’s only superpower. Write your representative and let them know that the U.S. doesn’t need permission from other nations or the UN to respond to the attack of last week.
"Our constitution gives us that power. The U.S. can and will deal with this trash. Just support your government, and our military especially, when the bodies start coming home.
"The U.S. lost the war in Vietnam because of lack of support at home. When you fight wars, people get killed. Our way of life is at stake here, and we must fight for it. Americans should keep flying their flags, supporting their government and writing their Congressmen. God Bless America “.
A precious life given in a noble cause
Mike Spann, 32, was the first American killed by the enemy. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery where he has loved to walk among the headstones of the fallen heroes.
What Mike was doing in the moments before he died is crystal clear although accounts of how he actually died vary. On November 25, 2001, Johnny Micheal Spann, who worked in a little known paramilitary unit of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, was interrogating Taliban prisoners at Qala-I-Jangi. Unbeknownst to Mike one of them was a fellow American; John Walker Lhind who converted to Islam and took up the Taliban cause.
A few short moments after questions posed to Mr. Lhind elicited only silence, Mike Spann was killed in a chaotic prison uprising. Walker-Lhind, who was wounded, hid and was captured seven days later.
It is their encounter, a videotaped face-off between countrymen and enemies, a secret soldier from the small-town and a self-proclaimed seeker of “a true Islamic state” that has Mike Spann’s family and other Americans fixated on a particularly painful moment in the war. It was an unthinkable confrontation between two young American men, one fighting for his country, the other against it.
“It was a quest for right that Mike, at his country’s call, went to Afghanistan, “ said George J.Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence, adding. “To that place of terror and danger, he sought to bring justice and freedom.” Mr. Tenet described Mr. Spann, 32 as “an American patriot who knew that information saved lives, and that his collection is a risk worth taking.”
“Michael would have given his life getting Walker out of that place if only Walker had told him he was an American and what was going to happen,” said Mike’s father, Johnny Spann.
Mr. Spann was the 79th employee of the spy agency killed in the line of duty. Like the 78 agents who died before him Mr. Spann will be honored with the placing of a star in the CIA Headquarters lobby. Roughly half of the stars remain nameless for security reasons, but the CIA officials said that given widespread publicity about Mr. Spann’s death, it made little sense to keep his identity secret.
On the 28th day of November 2001 George J. Tenet made these statements the Director of Central Intelligence on the Death of a CIA Officer in Afghanistan:
"It is my sad duty to announce that one of our officers at the Central Intelligence Agency has died in the line of duty in Afghanistan. Johnny Micheal “Mike" Spann, who worked in the Directorate of Operations, was where he wanted to be: on the front lines serving his country. Given the nature of the CIA’s mission, I can publicly discuss his activities and the circumstances surrounding hid death only in broad terms.
"Mike was in the Qala-I-Jangi prison , where the Taliban prisoners were being held and questioned. Although these captives had given themselves up, their pledge of surrender - like so many other pledges from the vicious group they represent - proved worthless.
"Their prison uprising, which had murder as its goal, claimed many lives, among them that of a very brave American, whose body was recovered just hours ago.
"Mike joined CIA in June 1999. A young man, only 32 years old, he was no stranger to challenge or daring. He came to us from the United States Marine Corps, whose traditions he loved and whose values of courage and commitment he carried with him till the end.
"Quiet, serious and absolutely unflappable, Mike’s stoicism concealed a dry sense of humor and a heart of gold. His brand of leadership was founded not on words, but on deeds, deeds performed in conditions of hazards and hardship.
"His was a career of promise in a life of energy and achievement. A precious life given in a noble cause. Mike fell bringing freedom to a distant people while defending freedom for all of us here at home. His CIA family, too, is in mourning.
"But just as we grieve together, we work together to continue the mission that Mike Spann held sacred. And so we will continue our battle against evil, with renewed strength and spirit.
"We owe that to Mike and to every man and woman who dreams of the future free of the menace of terrorism.”
UPDATE per Johnny Spann 11/18/11
Verne, There are a couple of corrections. Mostly all Al Queda prisonors were there. It is my understanding
that (Afghan general) Dostum had agree to let the afghan Taliban
fighters give up their arms and go home at Kundus. Their were a
few Taliban there that did not acknowledge they were Afghan.
This is according to info. I was given. So Mike was killed by
Al Queda fighters. John Walker Lhind was Al Queda, not Taliban.
Can't remember if I explained this to you before. It is an
This historic material is used courtesy of Johnny Spann and family in honor of Fallen Warrior Michael Spann. http://www.honormikespann.org/about.htm.
Funeral at Arlington -- Homage to a Fallen Warrior.