Johnny Spann had just dropped off his granddaughter at her school in Birmingham, Alabama, on Monday when he grew so frustrated at the images on his cellphone that he had to pull over to the side of the road. The 73-year-old watched in horror as Afghans so desperate to escape the Taliban’s capture of their nation plunged to their deaths after trying to hold onto a U.S. military jet as it departed Kabul.

The images from nearly 7,500 miles away — a scene, he said, that reminded him of Americans during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks who jumped to their deaths from the World Trade Center — were an uncomfortable reminder for Spann. This November marks 20 years since his son, Johnny Micheal Spann, who went by Mike, became the first known American to die during combat in the Afghan War. Mike Spann, 32, a CIA paramilitary officer from Winfield, Ala., was killed during a Taliban prisoner uprising in northern Afghanistan.

So when President Joe Biden said Monday that he was resolute in his decision to close down a war effort that lost its way long ago, Johnny Spann was heartbroken and angered over the message, he said, and the president’s decision told Americans: “We’ve been defeated.”

“We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes,” Spann told The Washington Post, adding that Afghanistan had been “handed over to the Taliban.” “We could not have done the things that we did as a country without those Afghans. We made promises to them — and we know what’s going to happen to them.”

Although Spann said he is not opposed to American troops leaving the country, he disagreed with it happening now, telling The Post: “I’m very frustrated and ashamed of the way we’re exiting Afghanistan.”

He is among the chorus of dissenters offering criticism that the United States is abandoning allies and breaking commitments, even as Biden has said the situation was ultimately not within the United States’ power or responsibility to fix.


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The president vowed to “not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past — the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of U.S. forces.” The sentiment was echoed Tuesday by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who said U.S. officials have been in contact with the Taliban about safe travel of those heading to the airport to leave Afghanistan as the United States seeks to evacuate Americans and refugees.

“The images from the past couple of days at the airport have been heartbreaking, but President Biden had to think about the human costs of the alternative path as well, which was to stay in the middle of a civil conflict in Afghanistan,” Sullivan said at a White House news conference.

Weeks after planes tore into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. 2001, and crashed into the ground in western Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people, Mike Spann volunteered for a dangerous deployment to avenge those deaths and prevent future attacks. A former Marine who had been with the CIA for two years, he felt an obligation to go to Afghanistan after previously warning colleagues about the threat of al-Qaida after the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.

The decision meant being away from two young daughters from his first marriage and an infant son he had with his second wife. Shannon Spann, an officer in the CIA’s counterterrorism center who was on maternity leave at the time, told The Post’s Ian Shapira in 2019 that she supported him, even though she told him they “needed to think about what might happen to our family if he wasn’t here.”

“I wanted him to go,” she told The Post. “That was who he was. He needed to be part of the solution.”


But family members knew something was wrong in fall 2001, when news reports indicated that something bad had happened to an American in Afghanistan. Mike Spann, who had been roaming northern Afghanistan for about six weeks, ended up at Qala-i-Jangi, a fort near Mazar-e Sharif, on Nov. 25, 2001. As Spann and at least one other CIA operative, along with several journalists, were interviewing Taliban prisoners, hundreds of Taliban members who had been taken prisoner at the fort staged a massive uprising.

Shortly after CIA officers confirmed that the Alabama man had disappeared at the prison, the news came out: Spann was killed in the uprising.

In the weeks and months that followed, the CIA operative was described as “a symbol of the struggle against terrorism.” Johnny Spann in 2001 read the last email he received from his oldest child and only son, in which Mike Spann urged people to support the war against terrorism.

“Support your government and your military,” the son wrote, “especially when the bodies start coming home.”

Mike Spann was one of 2,448 American service members killed in Afghanistan from Sept. 11, 2001, to April 2021, according to The Associated Press; 3,846 U.S. contractors have died there in that span.

Johnny Spann noted in an interview Tuesday how the family’s outlook on Afghanistan changed when they visited the nation in 2002, about a year after his son’s death. He said he could still picture the faces of the women and children they met who were dancing and singing, and appreciative that the Spann family had come such a long distance.


“They were expressing their gratitude and thankfulness,” he said. “We don’t need to judge Afghanistan by the few bad apples. I met a lot of good Afghan people who were so thankful toward us.”

Alison Spann, his granddaughter and Michael Spann’s eldest child, was terrified of visiting a country she only knew for “death and destruction.” When she landed in Afghanistan, Alison Spann cried, wondering why they were in the country where her father was killed. But she acknowledged this week on Facebook that the trip after her father’s death “changed my life and perspective forever.”

“The people of Afghanistan are amongst the kindest I have ever been around. They are resilient beyond belief … I found such joy in people, and in a place, that had seen so much pain,” wrote Spann, now a television anchor in Mississippi. “The fear that must come from the Taliban taking over is unimaginable. My heart is heavy.”

The walls of Johnny Spann’s real estate office in Winfield — a city of 4,700 people about 80 miles northwest of Birmingham — remain covered in pictures, flags and trinkets honoring his son nearly two decades after his death. He described the past 20 years as “pretty taxing,” and said the events in recent days have brought back emotions that have been largely dormant.

Spann, a critic of Biden and supporter of President Donald Trump, said it was “gut-wrenching” for him to think that his son’s sacrifice, and that of many Americans and Afghans, were “sort of brushed under the rug and walked away from” during the Taliban’s takeover.

But he stopped short of saying Mike Spann’s death, or any of those who’ve died in Afghanistan during that period, was now in vain. If anything, he said, the chaos and desperation he saw on his cellphone this week are reminders to Johnny Spann that his son “died for a good cause.”

“They did what they were supposed to do — we did what we were supposed to do,” he said. “I’m proud of Mike and his partners, the people he went there with; I’m so proud of them. I don’t want them to think everything they did was in vain.

“For 20 years, they kept us safe.”