CIA officer Mike Spann, the first American known to be killed in combat in Afghanistan, grew up in a small Alabama town with dreams of serving his country.

"He wanted to be in the FBI or CIA. That's what he always wanted to do," said Billy Mack Spann, a relative. "He got in the service and went from there."

Johnny "Mike" Spann, 32, who entered the Marine Corps and then joined the CIA in June 1999, was killed in action during a prison riot at Mazar-e-Sharif. His body was recovered Wednesday, the CIA said, without providing details on the circumstances of Spann's death.

Relatives learned over the weekend that Spann was missing, but few people in town knew he worked for the CIA until hearing news of his death. Flags in his hometown were lowered to half-staff Wednesday, and a black bow was on the door of his father's real estate business.

"We consider him a hero," said Spann's father, Johnny Spann, who fought back tears during a late-afternoon news conference. "His favorite words to me were, 'That's the right thing to do, daddy.'"

In Washington, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he spoke to Mike Spann's wife.

"She said that when I saw people, I should tell them her husband cared about America, cared about the future of America, and cared about the security of Americans," Shelby said, fighting back tears.

"This week has really brought home the war to Winfield," said Tracy Estes, a family friend and news editor of the town's biweekly newspaper, The Journal Record.

Married with three young children, Spann played football at Winfield City High School, graduating in 1987. He attended Auburn University, earning a degree in criminal justice and law enforcement. Like many in the town of about 4,500, he set his sights on something bigger and earned a post in America's foreign intelligence agency.

James Wyers, minister of Winfield Church of Christ who had known Spann for 20 years, said Spann had been interested in working for the CIA since he was a teen.

"This was his thing. He wanted to do it," Wyers said.

CIA Director George J. Tenet called Spann an American hero.

Danny Little, an insurance agent who watched Spann grow up, said he was proud to have been acquainted with a man who gave his life helping others.

"Lord knows how many people will benefit," he said.

Many Winfield residents would not speak with reporters, apparently out of respect for the family's wishes.

After the CIA confirmed Spann was dead, a local radio station broadcast two special reports.

"What are the odds?" said David Richards, program director at WKXM, as he pondered over how the first American combat death in this new war would have come from Winfield, about 75 miles northwest of Birmingham.