He was a baby when his dad died in Afghanistan. He's 18 now, and the war isn't over
By IAN SHAPIRA | The Washington Post | Published: November 26, 2019
First came the horse-drawn wagon rolling through Arlington National Cemetery, carrying the remains of the first American killed in Afghanistan in a flag-draped casket. Members of a Marine honor guard trailed behind, clad in navy blue uniforms, white caps and white gloves, marching ramrod-straight to muffled drums and the clip-clop of horse hoofs.
Then the family of CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann appeared, dressed in black. His 32-year-old widow, Shannon Spann, who also worked at the agency, walked behind the caisson, cradling a white-blanketed bundle in her arms. This was their infant son, Jake, just 6 months old on Dec. 10, 2001.
Jake had no way of knowing he was at the nation's most distinguished military cemetery. Or that his father, a 32-year-old CIA paramilitary officer, was among the first U.S. warriors sent to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks to confront the terrorists responsible. Or that, by losing his father, Jake would become a symbol of the longest war in U.S. history, one still claiming American lives 18 years later.
Jake is 18 now, too, a high school senior in Michigan. In the years since he and his two older half sisters became the first kids to lose a parent in Afghanistan, hundreds of others have joined them as children of the fallen.
Jake knows his loss is different from theirs — and different from that of his sisters, Alison, 27, a television anchor in Mississippi, and Emily, 22, a senior at Auburn University.
"It's tricky and confusing to think about these experiences at the funeral or with my dad, which I really can't describe as 'experiences' because I haven't retained those memories," Jake said. "A lot of sadness comes from just growing up wondering what it all would have been like. You feel kind of robbed of that emotional catharsis that comes with mourning."
It is phantom grief. His mom married again — another CIA officer, Thys DeBruyn, who has since left the agency. Jake has always called DeBruyn "Dad." But he has never stopped wondering about his biological father.
Sometimes, he thinks about researching Mike's last assignment, which has been chronicled in a documentary, books and news articles. Other times, he said, he hesitates to search online or ask his mom questions. He's not sure he's ready.
Shannon and Mike Spann were having a rare argument in the living room of their Manassas Park, Virginia, townhouse. Weeks earlier, planes had torn into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and crashed into the ground in western Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people. Now Mike was volunteering for a dangerous deployment to avenge those deaths and prevent future attacks.
Shannon, an officer in the CIA's counterterrorism center who was on maternity leave, pushed him hard. How, she asked, could he leave his family? Jake was just 3 months old, and Mike had barely seen him since his birth on June 8, 2001, because he'd spent much of the summer in the Balkans on an agency mission. They also had two daughters from his first marriage, Alison, then 9, and Emily, nearly 4. Their mother — Mike's first wife — was dying of cancer.
Was this really the best time?
"I wanted him to go. That was who he was. He needed to be part of the solution. But I also told him we needed to think about what might happen to our family if he wasn't here," said Shannon, now 50 and a security consultant. "It was upsetting for him to think about. Honestly, I just didn't think he wanted to imagine the reality of me being a single mom with three kids. We never really resolved it."
Mike, a former Marine who joined the CIA in 1999, felt an obligation. He'd been warning his colleagues about al-Qaida since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors.
"After the Cole bombing, Mike said we needed to be more aggressive — that this was coming our way," said a close friend, a current CIA paramilitary officer in charge of the agency's covert operations, who traveled with Mike on his final mission.
Mike loved his children and was thrilled to have a son. When he wasn't traveling, Shannon said, he pushed Jake around their northern Virginia neighborhood in a stroller, which he dubbed the JTV, the Jake Terrain Vehicle. He got the baby dressed in the morning, bathed him at night and tried to dissuade his daughters from giving their new brother silly nicknames — Moochie or Boo Boo Bear.
"Uh, why don't we just call him Jake?" Mike said.
"He was so excited to have a child with Shannon; it was something so important to him," his CIA colleague said in an interview. "But how do you have that connection to your children and still work for the CIA, especially as a paramilitary officer?"
On Oct. 4, his last day at home before leaving for Afghanistan, Mike posed for a photo with the children. Emily stood to his right and Alison was on his left, flashing big smiles. Their dad stared straight into the camera, hugging Jake.
All Shannon knew was that Mike was roaming northern Afghanistan, chasing members of al-Qaida and the Taliban, looking for signs of another potential attack and the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
On Thanksgiving, Shannon remembers him calling from a satellite phone. She and Jake were visiting her parents in California. She didn't feel comfortable asking for details about his operations over an open phone line, so he asked most of the questions.
Was Jake doing anything new? Yes, Shannon said. He's smiling a lot. He has discovered his feet.
When are you coming home? she asked. Mid-December, he said, right in time for Christmas.
On Nov. 25, her sister-in-law called. She'd heard on the news that something had happened to an American in Afghanistan. Shannon scrambled to reach her boss at the CIA. He said that they were trying to pinpoint Mike's location, but that some people from the office would fly out to meet her at once.
"I knew then there was a problem," Shannon said.
Hundreds of Taliban members, who had been taken prisoner at a fort in northern Afghanistan called Qala-i-Jangi, were staging a massive uprising against their Northern Alliance captors. Mike and at least one other CIA operative, along with several journalists, were inside the prison, interviewing Taliban prisoners.
By Sunday night, amid a stream of news reports about the chaos at Qala-i-Jangi, CIA officers confirmed that Mike had disappeared at the prison.
Soon it became official: Mike had been killed.
Two weeks later, Shannon cradled Jake in her arms as she walked behind her husband's casket.
"She was a pillar of strength," said Mike's CIA covert operations colleague, who flew in from the war zone to attend the ceremony at Arlington. "She didn't have anyone minding Jake. "
At one point, she passed Jake to her father-in-law, but only so she could stand up before the assembled mourners and deliver a eulogy. "Semper Fi, my love," she said from the lectern, blowing a kiss in the direction of her husband's casket.
Jake was 4 or 5 when he remembers first seeing the sepia-toned photo of his father hanging in the main hallway of their home — the one that now dominates Mike Spann's Wikipedia page. He asked his mom: What happened to Dad?
He was in another country fighting bad guys and died, she said.
When Jake was in third or fourth grade, he wanted to know: What exactly was his father doing in Afghanistan? His mom, he said, got more specific. "He was at a fort interrogating prisoners and sending back information," she told him.
Jake had inherited his father's dark wavy hair and narrow brown eyes.
"My mom and grandfather all say we have the same voice," Jake said.
In high school in Traverse City, Michigan, where Jake rows varsity crew and runs track, few people knew about his father's death. Most of his classmates were born after the Sept. 11 attacks. They haven't paid much attention to a faraway war waged by three presidents that has taken the lives of more than 2,400 Americans.
But one day, during his sophomore year, a student he didn't know approached him. He said he was reading "Horse Soldiers," a book that details Mike's role interrogating Taliban prisoners and his death. A Hollywood action movie based on the book had just come out, so the work was attracting new attention.
"He said he appreciated my dad's service," Jake said. "It was cool and totally random."
Jake has been applying to colleges and thinking about his future. He might want to become a screenwriter or an investigative journalist. Or, he said, he might want to join the CIA.
When Jake came to Washington over the summer for journalism and national security programs at area colleges, he got a special invitation. The CIA's paramilitary team wanted to see him.
At Langley, he entered the lobby and saw his father's name in black calligraphy in the Book of Honor, which lists some of the names of CIA officers killed in the line of duty. On the white marble Memorial Wall, he saw his father's black star — the 79th out of 133 honoring each of the agency's fallen.
Then, the paramilitary guys took him upstairs to their offices, where they gave him a hatchet passed down from Afghan special operations forces, a photo of a memorial at the prison where his dad died and a carefully folded American flag in a shadow-box frame. A gold plaque underneath reads: "Jake — We flew this flag in honor of your dad at Qala-i-Jangi on 25 November 2017. We will never forget his sacrifice — Team Afghanistan."
"That was pretty badass," Jake said. "I was thinking the whole time this will look so cool hanging up in my bedroom."
His father, they said, was quiet and contemplative, a "stoic guy." But unlike the rest of them, he could ride a horse well.
Then, they walked through the agency's museum. A case displays his father's black-and-brown assault rifle that he'd fired in his final moments against Taliban prisoners and a Bible used at his memorial service in Afghanistan, along with an excerpt from his father's CIA application: "I am an action person that feels personal responsibility for making any changes in this world that are in my power because if I don't no one else will."
That night, one of his father's comrades took Jake out to dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a historic restaurant near the White House. As they ate, the CIA officer told Jake a bit more about the prison riot that killed his father. The officer, Jake said, told him that it "came down to a melee" and that his father, after firing his weapon until it was empty, was eventually overwhelmed.
Jake knows there's a documentary, "The House of War," that shows his father's final hours, interrogating Taliban prisoners, including John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban."
"It would be interesting to see the video of my father," Jake said. "I've never heard his voice."
His father has missed every milestone: The moment Jake took his first real steps — on Father's Day. The day Jake earned a black belt in taekwondo, and the day he became certified in sailing. The night he went to prom.
He won't be there when Jake learns whether he got into his first choice for college — New York University. He won't be there when Jake graduates from high school.
Jake had been back to his father's grave before, but never without relatives.
Now, on a July day, Jake took a shuttle bus to the southern part of the cemetery, all the way to Section 34. He headed north up a grassy slope dotted with the white headstones of military members who served in both world wars.
All the headstones were without adornment, except his father's, No. 2359. A dozen gray and beige pebbles sat on top. A blue-and-white 9/11 Memorial & Museum 5K run/walk medallion hung off the side. Four U.S. flags were stuck in the grass next to a wilted bouquet of flowers.
What was a king-of-spades playing card doing there?
Jake took a photo of the card and the stones and texted it to his grandfather, but he didn't know who had placed the items there. Then he texted the CIA officer he had dined with the previous night. The officer said he thought the king of spades was placed there because of his long sword.
Jake paced around his father's headstone.
The sun and heat smothered the burial grounds, but large trees nearby helped cast shadows right over his father's resting spot. Jake sat down. He crossed his legs on the soft grass and stared at the face of the headstone. He was just inches from the flags, the pebbles, the medallion, the king of spades, the weathered flowers, and the engraved capitalized letters of his father's name.
Emily, left, Alison and Jake, with their grandfather Johnny Spann, at the CIA Memorial Wall in 2018.