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My Husband’s Heroic Legacy and the True Meaning of Sacrifice

The widow of Mike Spann, America’s first casualty on the battlefield after 9/11, seeks to honor him by living her life the way he would have wished

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Shannon Spann (behind flag) stands at Arlington National Cemetery during a funeral with full military honors for her husband, CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, on December 10, 2001. Mike Spann, a former Marine Corps officer, was killed during a prisoner uprising near Mazar-I Sharif on November 25, 2001, becoming the first casualty of America’s war in Afghanistan.
Photo: Robert Trippett/Getty Images

On Memorial Day in 2001, Mike insisted we bring his daughters Alison, who had just turned 9, and Emily, 3, to visit Arlington National Cemetery. It was a sacred day for him, and Arlington was a sacred place.

He was a former Marine Corps officer with a deep patriotism and respect for those who had paid for our freedom with their lives. At that time, we were both serving our country as CIA officers.

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I was just a few days away from giving birth to our son, Jake. There were certainly other things we could have done with the girls that day. But on Memorial Day, if you were Mike Spann and you were within reach of a place to honor fallen service members, that’s what you did.

We took the Metro — nobody offered their seat to the nine-months-pregnant woman — and walked all around the cemetery, spending most of the day there.

I remember Mike telling the girls the story of the cemetery and the wars Americans had fought in. He explained to them how to step respectfully behind a headstone rather than right in front of it. We walked along Grant Drive, named after Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general and later U.S. president, who was one of Mike’s heroes. 

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Eight days later, Jake was born, and just three months after that, our nation was attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on 9/11. As with so many people, my life — already complicated — was turned upside down. 

For my family, the turmoil and tragedy were more direct than for most — Mike was one of the first eight Americans sent behind enemy lines in Afghanistan and on Nov. 25, 2001, he became America’s first casualty on the battlefield in a new war that would last for 20 years. 

He died fighting, shooting back at his al-Qaeda attackers at close quarters during a prisoner uprising at Qala-i-Jangi before he was overwhelmed. We were both 32.

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CIA paramilitary Johnny "Mike" Spann, 32, who served as a Marine Corps officer before joining the CIA in 1999.
Courtesy CIA/Getty Images

Less than a month after Mike was killed, I found myself back at Arlington for Mike’s funeral, numbed by grief and holding a 5-month-old Jake. I hardly remember delivering a eulogy, which was filmed live on national television. “Mike is a hero not for the way that he died,” I said, “but rather because of the way he lived.”

He was buried in Section 34 of the cemetery, which is flanked by Grant Drive.

Mike was given a white marble headstone. In the years since, I’ve tried to think of what Martin Luther King Jr. said about the “arc of the moral universe” as a way to make some sense of Mike’s death.

When the loss is recent and up close and personal, it’s harder to believe in that arc. But in the years since 2001, when I’ve stood in Arlington among all the headstones stretching out as far as one can see, I’ve felt that as precious as Mike’s one headstone is to me, it’s even more precious because it’s part of the whole.

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This year, Memorial Day is more difficult than before because of the moral injury suffered by the veteran community due to the harm that’s coming to our allies and partners in Afghanistan. On previous Memorial Days, I would mourn but I had a greater ability than I do now to say the sacrifice was worth the cost.

That phrase in his eulogy about the way Mike lived his life was central to the reason I, along with several of Mike’s comrades, set up a nonprofit charity to assist the approximately 30 families of the men who fought alongside the CIA and Green Berets in northern Afghanistan immediately after 9/11.

We called it Badger Six, a call sign used by members of Mike’s team in 2001. Mike wasn’t able to continue living his life, so we who are left are living our lives in his way through Badger Six.

Eight years after Mike’s death, I remarried. My husband, Thys, and I have a son, Lucas, who is now 12. I recently visited Arlington with Lucas. Spring is my favorite time to be there and fall, I guess, my least favorite, because it’s so close to my story.

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I am struck by how much life has happened between 2001 and now, and being at Arlington puts that in stark relief.

Jake, that baby I held at his father’s funeral, is turning 22 and pursuing his dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. Alison and Emily are grown women living full and productive lives.

spinner image a mother and her kids next to the grave of their father
In this May 27, 2002, file photo Shannon Spann, widow of CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann, and her three children, from left, Emily, 4, Alison, 10, and Jake, 11 months, visit the grave of their lost husband and father on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.
Mia Aigotti/AP Photo

I was really proud of Lucas at Arlington. He’s very respectful of my unique part of our family history. He was taken by the fact that there were six pebbles lined up on Mike’s grave when we arrived. I explained that they had been placed there by people who had come to visit him. I smiled as I showed Lucas how to step respectfully behind the headstones.

Lucas was very impressed by the scale of Arlington, all those people who have sacrificed. “I really needed this,” he told me, “because when I look around at all that’s going on in the world and our country right now, I sometimes forget how much was invested in making it good.” I wasn’t expecting him to make that connection. 

The two of us spent an hour watching the Changing of the Guard and a wreath-laying ceremony. Since it was spring break, there were hundreds of school-age kids at Arlington that day. I was gratified to see Lucas among them, all standing very still and paying attention, being quiet and not looking at their phones. It was heartwarming.

Mike would be honored and astonished and in awe of being buried at Arlington. His heroes are there. I don’t think in a million years he would have imagined himself as part of this bigger story. 

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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