Published November 25, 2011
"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."
-- Former CIA Director George Tenet, Dec. 10, 2001, at the funeral of CIA Officer Mike Spann.
Ten years ago this week, on Nov. 25, CIA officer Mike Spann -- one of the first the first Americans on the ground in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks -- was killed in the line of duty.
Spann was part of an elite team. As the first combat casualty, his death was a seminal event for the agency, one that inspired the creation of the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation.
"When Mike Spann was killed in Afghanistan, it really rang a bell for us," John McLaughlin a former acting director of the CIA told Fox News in a rare interview about the Foundation. "Sooner or later, we are going to feel an obligation to provide support to the families of people killed in the line of duty."
This year, to mark the 10th anniversary, the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation is posting a message about Spann, his legacy and his impact. The foundation is also posting a brief history of its mission. To date, it has offered financial support or scholarships to three spouses as well as 47 children of fallen officers.
According to the foundation's website, the Central Intelligence Agency inserted its first covert team into Afghanistan just 16 days after Sept. 11. On the day he died, Spann and a fellow agency officer were interrogating Taliban prisoners at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The prisoners were not well screened. As Spann and his fellow officer "Dave" questioned the prisoners, loud explosions and automatic weapons fire could be heard before armed detainees overwhelmed the men.
"Dave" says he saw Spann surrounded, and then he lost sight of him. And while Dave reached safety on the compound's perimeter, journalists reported that Spann might have escaped. Several days passed, but once the fortress was retaken Spann's death was confirmed.
Spann left behind a wife, Shannon who was also an agency officer, and three small children. When the media began reporting on Spann's death, it seemed to resonate with a nation still grieving for the nearly 3,000 Americans murdered on Sept. 11.
While donations poured into CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., the agency cannot accept gifts from the public. So former members of the CIA, including its general counsel, Jeffrey H. Smith, set up the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation Charity.
Those who work with the foundation say it has made a simple promise to those officers who put themselves in harm's way. According to the foundation, it would "honor Mike Spann's devotion to his country and that of the other CIA officers who had died in the line of duty before him and those who sadly were certain to follow."
A former Marine, Spann was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At his funeral, his wife said, "My husband was a hero not because of the way he died, but rather for the way he lived."
At CIA headquarters, the Wall of Honor is a constant reminder that the sacrifice in the war against al Qaeda and other extremist groups has a real cost. There is a star for each fallen officer who died in the line of duty. Spann's star is the 79th. Since al Qaeda attacked the twin towers and the Pentagon, master stone carvers have chiseled an additional 23 stars.
Last year, Fox News profiled former CIA officer Rob Richer and his wife Kim, who rode their bikes across the country to raise money for the foundation after the suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven agency officers in December 2009.
"To me this ride is about saying something to them, your family member was special," said Rob Richer, who spent his career in the Middle East. He told Fox News the journey across eight states was highly personal. "They loved you and they were doing something for their country."
"These people I feel a real affinity for," Kim Richer said before one of the couple's final training sessions. "This could have been me left behind and my children left behind."
Now retired from the agency, Rob Richer said he's making it a priority to spend more time with his family -- though he knows the seven officers killed in Khost will never have that chance.
The Richers saw donations come from unexpected places. Some people simply sent $20 in an envelope. All of it counted, according to McLaughlin, who said the risks taken by CIA officers have only increased.
"As we look to the future, no one knows whether this will happen again. But we can't assume it won't. We feel a more urgent obligation to raise funds and keep this mission going."
As al Qaeda and the War on Terror evolve, there is no longer a single battlefield in Afghanistan. There are growing threat centers in Yemen, Somalia, North and West Africa, among others. Those who support the foundation say it began as a fundamental promise to help the families who are left behind.
And the need is not abating. At least 56 children will be eligible for support over the next 17 years. This year, one of Spann's children, is now in college.
More information about the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation can be found at www.CIAMemorialFoundation.org.
Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for al Qaeda's American Recruits," draws on her reporting for Fox News into the new generation of intelligence officers at CIA and NCTC as well as the American cleric Al-Awlaki and the recruits of al Qaeda 2.0.