15th Anniversary: Johnny “Mike” Spann, first American killed in Afghanistan
CIA Special Operations officer killed in the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi (11-25-2001)
The first time we wrote about Johnny Micheal “Mike” Spann was in early May 2011, in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden:
Hearing the news of Osama bin Laden’s death brought forward many emotions and memories.
One of those memories for me was the story of Johnny “Mike” Spann, from Winfield, Alabama, the first American killed in … Afghanistan…, on November 25, 2001.
Spann was a CIA operative, one of a small number of Americans who landed in Afghanistan, helped coordinate local forces hostile to the Taliban, and directed bombing and other military action.
The story of this small band of men has been told, but not told enough.
Spann was killed during the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi when Taliban prisoners gained access to weapons and attacked.
Spann was killed during that uprising (see video). One of the prisoners was the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lyndh, who Spann interrogated shortly before Spann’s death.
Spann’s wife Shannon also worked for the CIA. In addition to his wife, Spann left behind two daughters and an infant son.
Each year since then, on November 25, we have remembered Mike Spann. You can scroll through the Johnny “Mike” Spann tag for all our reports.
Each year the research seems to discover new facts and stories, including the letter from Afghan warlord Abdul Rahdis Dostum and the memorial he dedicated in Spann’s memory, interviews with his oldest daughter Alison, and the family’s reaction to the release of Bowie Bergdahl.
This year, too, I found information and sources I had not known about previously. I found this photo of Spann in October 2001, the day he left for Afghanistan:
This photo shows Spann on horseback in Afghanistan:
And this photo of Spann “interviewing” American Taliban John Walker Lindh, in the prison where Spann would die during an uprising:
I saw, for the first time, a video of Spann’s father and a statement by White House spokesman Ari Fleisher, right after Spann’s death was announced. Unfortunately, the video cannot be embedded.
I also found this video of the return of Spann’s body:
And this Congressional Resolution passed just after his death:
This documentary tells the detailed story of the battle in which Spann was killed.
This video shows the 2014 handover to Afghan forces of Camp Mike Spann. The video is a tragic reminder of how bleak Afghanistan’s future still looks.
Alabama Senator Richard Shelby honored Spann with a statement on the floor of the United States Senate on November 17, 2016:
Mr. President, I rise today to honor the life and legacy of an Alabama patriot and American hero, Johnny Micheal Spann.
Nearly fifteen years ago – on November 25, 2001 – while fighting on behalf of our grateful nation, Mike made the ultimate sacrifice for our country in northern Afghanistan.
Mike Spann served as a U.S. Marine officer, and then later with the CIA, when his became the first U.S. combat casualty in the War on Terror in Afghanistan. As Americans, we honored the sacrifices made by those who have served and defended our nation on Veterans Day last week.
Mike is one of the heroic Americans that ran towards danger, putting his life on the line to fight for our freedom. Mike was dedicated to combating the tyranny, oppression, and terror that would be inflicted on the world by the Taliban and others who share their goals.
He gave his life in a noble undertaking, and our nation will be forever indebted to him and his family for his service. It is my honor to offer my deep appreciation and gratitude to Mike Spann for his willingness to put himself in harm’s way to protect the values and freedoms that we hold dear. His life exemplified honor and courage, and he will always be remembered for his great sacrifice.
As the Director of Central Intelligence said at Mike’s funeral, ‘May God bless Mike Spann – an American of courage – and may God bless those who love and miss him, and all who carry on the noble work that he began.’
We should not forget Mike Spann and others like him. I yield the floor.”
But as always, it’s the current story of the family that most resonates with me.
A father’s story: Johnny Spann remembers his fallen son:
Mike was part of the first team to drop into hostile territory on Oct. 16, 2001. He and his team were sent to Afghanistan to track down Osama bin Laden where they connected with soldiers from the Northern Alliance, an Afghani military front that fought against the Taliban government.
They connected with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance and began working to liberate Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan. Spann and his team fought on horseback alongside the Northern Alliance.
Spann spoke to Mike for the last time on Thanksgiving Day in 2001.
Mike told his father the news he had already seen that Mazar-e-Sharif was liberated….
Three days after Thanksgiving Day, the news came. Spann heard reports that there was a prisoner uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif. Two Americans were inside and one had gotten out. Spann knew at that moment there was a 50/50 chance Mike was the one left inside.
“I had the TV on but had all the other lights off, and she calls and she’s crying,” Spann said, remembering the call he got from Mike’s wife, Shannon. She got a call that the agency was sending people to his home.
“I said, ‘No, Shannon, this is the worst thing,” Spann said. Five minutes later, his doorbell rang, and agents told Spann the last time Mike was seen “he was conscious, and he was fighting.” Hours later, they had recovered his body….
After the uprising settled, Spann had the chance to hear the story from a Northern Alliance officer, who revealed the courage Mike exuded during the fight.
“He looked at me and said, ‘If it hadn’t been for Mr. Mike, we’d be dead,’” Spann said. “Mike engaged the enemy and put up a fight that they had to kill Mike and enabled all these other Afghan people to get out of there.”
“They weren’t Americans,” Spann continued. “At that point, Mike would be alive today if he had turned around to the back and got out…but he didn’t. But you think about, ‘How many lives did you save that day?’ and they were all other people, other nations. They were not Americans, the lives he saved. …Mike had to make a decision, ‘Am I going to fight or am I going to run? Who am I fighting for?’ And if he hadn’t have stood his ground and fought then there would’ve been a lot of people that would have been slaughtered that day if he hadn’t.”
A Bronze bust of Spann was recently dedicated, A symbol of courage:
Gail Spann stood by the bronze bust of her son, Johnny Micheal Spann, America’s first combat death in Afghanistan in 2001, and touched the top of its head.
“It brings back the memories of seeing him wanting to be in the Marines, and, of course as his mom, I didn’t want him to be there,” she said Thursday. “But gosh, I look back on it now and think what a wonderful thing he did.”
A day before Veterans Day, Gail Spann and her husband, Johnny Spann, saw the finished bronze for the first time in Houser Hall at the University of Alabama.
“When I walk in today and saw it in its finished state, I didn’t know what else to say other than I was proud of him,” Johnny Spann said.
The bust, which was cast at a foundry on the UA campus, was commissioned by the Alabama Marines Foundation. It was sculpted by Tuscaloosa-based artist Caleb O’Connor and retired Marine Col. Lee Busby.
I’ll leave you with this video of Spann’s daughter Alision, now a news reporter:
Rest in Peace, Johnny “Mike” Spann. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice.
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Like all the other warriors who have come before and after him, Mike Spann required no safe space. He was the kind of man who ran toward to gunfire. God help us if our country ever stops having citizens like him. Fair Winds and Following Seas.
Marines are a special breed. Mike Spann was an ANGLICO Marine. That made him a special breed within a special breed.
I was Navy owned but Marine Corp trained. The bottom line is that if a Marine DI at Pensacola didn’t think I should be a Naval Officer I wouldn’t have been a Naval Officer. That experience gives me, shall we say, perspective on the matter.
Fair winds and following seas and long may your big jib blow, Mike Spann.
I meant “draw.” Long may your big jib draw.
The wind blows, the sail draws. That was sloppy of me.
Thanks for the reminder professor.
One of many that believe in freedom and liberty, willing to sacrifice their lives for ours.