Afghanistan: America's Longest War

Winfield: 'One of Our Boys'

After his son's death, Johnny Spann recalls, he would drive to his real estate office, park in back out of sight of the street, sit at his desk and cry. No houses got built; little business was done.

Still, because Mike was the first American to die in Afghanistan, his father says, he made a point of calling the parents of those who fell after him.

He did not tell them about God or country. His message was simple: "I'm so sorry. I know how you feel. I lost my son, too."

The months passed, and the war continued, and eventually Johnny Spann stopped calling. There were too many parents, too many dead children. "Now, you can't remember all their names, there are so many," he says.

His own son was an all-American kid, who in high school got good grades, went to church and on weekends drank a little beer and raised a little hell.

Mike was hardworking -- as a teenager he built a house, earned a pilot's license and had ambitions to see the world beyond Winfield. Dale Weeks, a buddy, says Mike always talked of joining the military, then the FBI or CIA.

He graduated from Auburn in 1991, served as an officer in the Marines for eight years and joined the CIA's covert military operations unit. After 9/11, even though he was married and the father of three children, he volunteered to go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

On Nov. 25, he was at a prison interrogating prisoners (who included, although Spann did not realize it, John Walker Lindh, an American trained by al-Qaeda).The prisoners rioted and attacked their captors with weapons hidden in their garments. Spann was shot twice in the head.

Most people back in Winfield didn't even know Mike was in the CIA, let alone fighting in Afghanistan. Dale Weeks got the news from a friend who waved him down on the road.

At that moment, something changed.

"That was one of our boys," he says of Mike. "The war wasn't just on TV anymore."

Mike's death, Weeks says, "was the biggest thing ever to hit Winfield." Journalists came from around the world.

"Life in Winfield will never be the same," wrote Tracy Estes, news editor of the local Journal Record. "The conflict has become very personal." The newspaper would name Spann's death the top story of the past 40 years.

Much happens in 104 months, even in Winfield. The high school football team made it to the state championship. The town has installed several traffic lights, gotten a new postmaster, hired a new school superintendent and elected a new mayor. The Pastime Theater, a Depression-era gem, has been restored. There's a new Wal-Mart and a new Auto Zone.

Alison Spann, 9 when her father died, has just turned 18. She graduated recently from high school.

People remember what she wrote for her father's memorial service. Her grandfather Johnny read it as she stood at his side: "Daddy, I will miss you, but I know you're going to a better place. Thank you for making the world a better place." She put the letter in his casket, buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Spann's death still reverberates in a community where almost everyone knew him or his parents.

"We're such a small town, there's a common thread, and he's a part of us," says Ivie, the former school administrator who was Spann's neighbor.

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