Friday, November 18, 2011


First American to die in War on Terror buried at Arlington

  Mike Spann's flag-draped casket is borne by Marine Honor Guards to 
  final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery, December 11, 2001.
Johnny Spann, father of Mike, holds his son's tiny infant Jake, as he 
shares the unbearable with daughter-in-law Shannon and wife Gail.

By Verne Strickland / November 18, 2011

Micheal Spann, first American combatant to die in War on Terror, was killed November 25, 2001, in a dusty and chaotic prison courtyard in Afghanistan. He went down fighting, fending off a horde of enraged Muslim jihadists before he was overwhelmed.

Wielding an AK-47 and a Glock pistol, Mike killed the closest attackers as they surrounded him, pummeling him to the ground. At close range, they shot him in the head, apparently killing him instantly. A former combat Marine officer who transitioned into an elite CIA intelligence unit, Mike yielded no ground, asked for no mercy. His fierce killers gave no quarter. The handsome 32-year-old Alabama native died valiantly, but not in vain. Not in vain.

Half a world away, on December 11, 2001, Johnny Micheal Spann was interred in a stirring but dignified ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. A true hero had died in line of duty. Remarks in his honor were delivered personally at graveside by the Honorable George Tenet, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Sixteen days had elapsed since the young, idealistic American patriot was gunned down in Qala-I-Jangi prison in Afghanistan. Sixteen days.

At the time, Mike's grieving father, Johnny Spann, having just experienced the numbing, emotionally-charged service at Arlington, did not know how little he knew about his son's death. It was to be another ten years before he discovered the answers.

A lesser man would not have persevered with such intensity and devotion. Johnny Spann had a sense that something was amiss, given the limited information he was getting about Mike's CIA mission -- how and why it ended with his son being sacrificed -- executed -- in a prison riot in strife-torn Afghanistan. 

Back home in Alabama, Johnny Spann was at first puzzled, then suspicious, then angered. He set out to get the answers, and knew he could not quit until he had them. This is the epic story of his improbable quest that going forward would consume his every waking moment. It is best told by Johnny Spann himself -- who lived it.


I am talking by telephone with Johnny Spann . He has gone out to his car in the parking lot of his office to talk on his cell phone, affording him privacy as these intimate topics are discussed.

The last time I got to talk to Mike was on Thanksgiving Day of 2001. He had called on the SAT phone, and wanted to know how his children were doing. I was in Virginia taking care of his kids. And he said, ‘Dad, if I need to come on home now, I will, because his ex-wife, the mother of his two daughters, was extremely ill. Mike told me if he need to come on and get out of there he would do it. I told him no everything’s in control here.

Then he said to me I guess you saw the news where we took Mazar E Shiref (where Mike was killed November 25, the next day) and to attend a meeting. He said we’ve got a whole bunch of prisoners who have surrendered, and we’re going to bring some of them down to this area over the week-end, and I need to go and see if I can get some information off them. A lot of different nationalities and types of people are going to be there.
I was led to believe Mike really thought he was going to get some good information from them maybe on where bin Laden was and that was going to be his job to go over there and interview those prisoners. This was Thursday. He said as soon as I complete that and get my stuff done, I am coming back to the states and stay for the month of December. Then I’ll return in January he told me. I never talked to Mike again.

That’s when I heard reports on TV on Sunday about 11am our time, U.S. networks started breaking news that there had been a prison uprising in what they called Mazar E Shiref at Qala-I- Jangiwhich is outside of lazarsharif. And it was reported that there were two Americans there – the two CIA people – but they didn’t know if they were dead or alive but they didn’t know if they were Army or CIA or what.

So we looked at the TV the rest of the afternoon, and just before five o’clock, it was already dark here, and I got a knock on the door. The man told me who he was, and he said I’ve got some news to give you. I think you probably know what I’m going to say. And I said yeah I’m afraid I do. Because prior to that about five minutes before he knocked on my door, I had gotten a call from Mike’s wife, he second wife. He had remarried. She had just gotten a call, and had been trying to contact the CIA office all afternoon and wasn’t able to. 

She called me and was crying and she said she had reached the CIA and was that they had some folks coming to my Dad’s house in California. And I said yeah Shannon I think it is. And I hung up, and I just hit the floor and lost it. I just couldn’t stand it. And I was crying and pretty much out of control, so I was on the floor in the dark when the doorbell rang. They said the last time Mike was seen, he was alive, and that he was fighting. And he said that’s all we know. And we didn’t know anything different until Tuesday night at eleven o’clock, which was Wednesday morning in Afghanistan. They were actually able to get inside and get Mike’s body.

But on Monday they called C130 bombers in and I knew they were doing that, and in talking with the people who were at my house, and two times Wes Tenant (CIA Director) had called me and my question to him was why can’t we get somebody in there to see if Mike is dead or alive? Why are we dropping all these bombs, and why are we doing all this stuff and we don’t know where he’s at? And he said well the military is in charge and blah blah blah.

Later, maybe four or five months after we had buried Mike and I was back in Winfield Alabama, I got a call from a man, and he was back in the states and he wanted to talk to me and that he was a part of the fight that went on there, and he was actually a functions operator in one of the C130s. He said the first plane went in but had some malfunctions and had to pull off, and he said then he took his plane in toward the target. 

We came in and I fired a hundred rounds, and he gave me a shell casing the size that they were firing, and I still have it because I went to visit him to see the information he had. We talked for awhile and he told me what he saw, and of course he was around 18,000 feet up in the air. We talked and talked and the next night he called me or I called him and I asked if he knew who was at the prison when he started firing? He said no, that he didn’t know until four or five days afterwards. And I said so you didn’t know that Mike Spann was inside – that there was an American inside kalijangi that was not accounted for, and might have been dead or alive and you were shooting anything that moved? And he said yes, those were my orders.

 Hello, Verne, you still there? Yes I am. I’m speechless.

So that was upsetting to me. And I went through a period of time where I contacted some of the generals and different people to try to get some answers as to why they did that, and of course I got a couple of lies – one of the admirals told me that didn’t happen. That we didn’t drop any bombs, but we knew that was nnot true.

Multiple people began to surface. I was able to contact one of the men, an American who was assigned to a British team in Afghanistan, and they had been there at a Turkish schoolhouse that was six miles from the old prison, and he was sitting there with a team to assess the situation to see if they could get Mike out, or whoever the American was, because of course they didn’t know the American's identity. I was able to locate him in Germany and talk with him by overseas phone.

Then later soon as he gets back to the states I finally got the authorization after being warned a couple of times -- I was told by some of his superiors that I needed to let him alone, that I didn’t need to be talking to him. My answer to them was well you know he’s not going to be in the service forever, and I’m going to be here until I do get to talk to him.

I don’t know if the pressure got to them or what, but I got a call from one of the captains who told me if I wanted to talk to him, that I could but I’d have to come up to Virginia Beach. So I got an airplane ticket and went to Virginia Beach. I was able to meet him, and I talked to him with a JAG officer there to debrief him like they did me.

The man I had come to see said he manned a submachine gun when the prison riot broke out. He was trying to cover Mike so he could get close enough to see if Mike was dead or alive. They almost court-martialed him because he disobeyed orders by going in to do that. But I was grateful to him.

You’re going to see a movie here in not too long – well maybe it will take another year or so to get it out. It’s about the whole thing. The things I’m telling you. Of course in a 90-minute movie we can’t feature all the things I’ve told you. It’s going to be titled “House of War”. That’s what Qala-I-Jangi actually means. 

I could talk for days about all that has happened, but to get back to the nuts and bolts, we’re at the tenth anniversary, and all the things I’ve found out from people I’ve tracked down and talked about, I do want to mention the video. A few days after Mike was killed, we were in D.C. two or three days before we buried Mike. I was told that there was a video shot just before Mike died. I determined that I would find it, no matter what I had to do to get it.