Johnny Micheal Spann, the CIA officer who interrogated “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh at a prison in November of 2001, was the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan.
Spann was killed on November 25, 2001, when hundreds of prisoners at the Mazar-e Sharif fortress revolted, according to his memorial on the CIA website. His last act was to warn another colleague of the danger. Spann was just 32 years old.
Lindh, who was shot in the leg during the uprising, denied having any involvement in Spann’s murder or helping to plan the revolt. He pleaded guilty to supporting the Taliban in exchange for prosecutors dropping more severe charges, which includes conspiracy to kill Americans. Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison but was released on May 23, 2019, after 17 years behind bars. He was released early for good behavior.
Spann’s family fought against Lindh’s release. Spann’s father, also named Johnny, told the New York Times, “We’ve got a traitor that was given 20 years and I can’t do anything about it. He was given a 20-year sentence when it should’ve been life in prison.”
Spann’s daughter, Alison, who was only 9 years old when her father was killed, sent a letter to the White House asking the Trump administration to keep Lindh in federal prison. In the letter, which she shared on Twitter, she wrote, “I feel his early release is a slap in the face – not only to my father and my family, but for every person killed on September 11th, their families, the U.S. military, U.S. intelligent services, families who have lost loved ones to this war and the millions of Muslims worldwide who don’t support radical extremists.”
Here’s what you need to know about Johnny Micheal Spann.
1. Johnny Micheal Spann Grew Up in Alabama Playing Football
Johnny Micheal Spann was born in 1969. He spent his childhood in Winfield, Alabama, a small town about 80 miles northwest of Birmingham. He went by his middle name, Mike.
According to his memorial on the CIA website, Spann loved to play football at Winfield High School. He was a wide receiver and running back.
After graduating from high school, Spann chose to stay in-state for college. He attended Auburn University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1992.
In 2002, his hometown dedicated a park to their fallen hero. The Johnny Micheal Spann Memorial Park was dedicated in November of 2002, next to the Winfield City Hall. The mayor at the time, Bill West, said, “This is to honor Mike Spann for the sacrifice he made. He represents the best we have to give.”
2. Spann Joined the Marines While Still a College Student & Served For 8 Years
Johnny Micheal Spann made the decision to serve his country while he was a senior in college. He enlisted with the Marines in December of 1991, a few months before earning his bachelor’s degree.
Spann became an artillery specialist. He served for 8 years with the Marines and was promoted to Captain.
On the Arlington National Cemetery website, it explains that Spann served in Okinawa in 1994 and 1995. His commanding officer there, Major Mike Mullin, described Spann as very focused on the job. “He was very serious – and his main concern was that his Marines were prepared to go to battle. That’s the kind of guy he was. He told you straight and stuck to it.”
3. Spann Joined the CIA in 1999 & Met His Future Wife During Training
Johnny Micheal Spann joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1999 as a paramilitary officer. He finished basic training at the National Clandestine Service one more before his mission to Afghanistan. The director of the CIA at the time, George Tenet, described Spann as “quiet, serious, and absolutely unflappable … [his] stoicism concealed a dry sense of humor and a heart of gold.”
It was during basic training that Spann met the woman who would become his wife. Shannon Spann joined the CIA around the same time and became a counter-terrorism officer, while Spann was part of the Special Activities Division. She explained that they got to know each other during a Fourth of July party and that her husband used to tease afterward that that was the “best Fourth of July he ever had.”
They got married in early 2001 and had a son before Spann was deployed to Afghanistan in the fall of that year. Shannon Spann spoke at the funeral and praised her husband’s commitment to service. “He served his country by being good. Not everyone is skilled or has the desire to go to faraway places to fight in wars but all of us have the skills and should have the desire to serve our country by being good.”
4. Johnny Micheal Spann Left Behind Two Daughters & an Infant Son; His First Wife Passed Away From Cancer Just 33 Days After Spann Died in Afghanistan
Johnny Micheal Spann was the father of three children. He had two daughters, Alison and Emily, with his first wife. They were 9 and 4 when he was killed in Afghanistan. His son, Jacob Micheal, was only 6 months old.
Spann’s oldest child, Alison, is now a reporter in Biloxi, Mississppi. In an interview on CNN in September of 2013, she explained that her father taught her to “always strive to do my best and strive to get everything I could out of life. He taught me determination, and he taught me strength.” Alison added that her father took his daughters to the International House of Pancakes to break the news that he was being deployed to Afghanistan. Alison said she cried at the news and begged him not to go.
Alison explained that she and her family went to Afghanistan and visited the site where her father was killed. She said she met Spann’s former colleagues, who talked about how highly they had regarded Mike Spann.
In a written article for CNN in 2013, Alison shared that the family suffered a second terrible loss shortly after her father was killed in Afghanistan. Alison’s mother Kathryn Ann, Mike Spann’s first wife, passed away after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer. Alison said that her parents met while he was a college student and Kathryn was a high school senior. The young family lived in Okinawa, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia while Spann was in the Marines.
5. Mike Spann Was Buried With Full Military Honors at Arlington National Cemetery
Johnny Micheal Spann is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was laid to rest on December 5, 2001, with full military honors.
Then-CIA Director George Tenet was in attendance. Part of his speech was shared on the CIA website:
“It was in the quest for right that Mike at his country’s call went to Afghanistan. To that place of danger and terror, he sought to bring justice and freedom. And to our nation — which he held so close to his heart — he sought to bring a still greater measure of strength and security. For Mike understood that it is not enough simply to dream of a better, safer world. He understood that it has to be built — with passion and dedication, in the face of obstacles, in the face of evil.”
Spann’s star on the CIA Memorial Wall was the 79th carved on the wall in honor of fallen agents. He was also posthumously awarded the Intelligence Star and the Exceptional Service Medallion.