For Jake, it’s a life­time

He was a baby when his dad died in Afghanista­n. He’s 18 now, and the war goes on.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY IAN SHAPIRA

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-yearold 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.

An obli­ga­tion

Shan­non and Mike Spann were hav­ing a rare ar­gu­ment in the liv­ing room of their Manas­sas Park, Va., 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- Qaeda 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.

A prison up­ris­ing

All Shan­non knew was that Mike was roam­ing north­ern Afghanista­n, chas­ing mem­bers of al- Qaeda 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 Sun­day, Nov. 25, her sis­terin-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 [for her]. ”

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.

‘ The same voice’

Jake was 4 or 5 when he re­mem­bers first see­ing the sepi­a­toned 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, Mich., 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.

Miss­ing ev­ery mile­stone

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 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.

Ar­ling­ton’s shad­ows

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 sat un­adorned, ex­cept his fa­ther’s, No. 2359. A dozen gray and beige peb­bles sat on top. A blue-and­white 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.

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST

ABOVE: Jake Spann vis­its his fa­ther’s grave at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery. LEFT: Shan­non Spann, CIA of­fi­cer Johnny “Mike” Spann’s widow, car­ries Jake af­ter view­ing the cas­ket in 2001.

JOE MAR­QUETTE/POOL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHOTOS BY BILL O’LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: Items left at Johnny “Mike” Spann’s grave at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery, which son Jake, above, vis­ited over the sum­mer. The teen’s fa­ther worked for the CIA and was killed in Afghanista­n. BE­LOW: Spann at home in Vir­ginia in 2001 with Emily, left, Jake and Ali­son. A CIA op­er­a­tive, bot­tom cen­ter, in­ter­ro­gated Tal­iban pris­on­ers with Spann at the fort where the deadly up­ris­ing oc­curred in late 2001.

FAM­ILY PHOTO

CNN/GETTY IMAGES

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