The two met at a party Mike threw at his parents' home in Winfield, Alabama. It was one of those parties kids have when Mom and Dad leave town. Kathryn Ann was a high school senior living in a neighboring town; he was a handsome young college student at Auburn University. A romance was born.
Soon, Kathryn Ann was driving her clunker of a pickup the three hours to Auburn University to see her new beau. Alison's father was reserved, with a dry sense of humor; her mother was his loud, outgoing alter ego -- as Alison puts it, "the whiskey to his Coca-Cola."
They wed and lived the military life on the move: Okinawa, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia.
At one stop, their cul-de-sac was nicknamed Sesame Street because so many children played in the road. One summer night, as the kids raced around in a game of tag, her father broke from his tough-guy persona. He chased after them and pretended he couldn't catch them. Her mother joined in.
"I caught myself looking back on that day a lot more often" after they died, she says. "That was one of the best memories of the two of them."
In a favorite photo, her father sports a tight military buzz cut and holds Alison in his arms. She drapes her arm around his neck as he kisses her. Daddy's little girl.
"You have so many different steps in life. You go to college, you go on your first date, you go to prom," she says. "Just things like that growing up are little reminders every day that my parents will never be here to do these things with me."
The final conversation
After Alison finished third grade in 2001, her father took her to an International House of Pancakes in Virginia to celebrate. A few months later, shortly after 9/11, he brought Alison and her siblings to the same restaurant. By then, she'd had time to adjust to the new living arrangements and the birth of her brother.
But this time, the mood at the IHOP was anything but celebratory.
Mike told his children he would soon deploy to Afghanistan. Alison had watched on television as the attacks of September 11, 2001, unfolded. Now her father was heading to the country that harbored the terrorists.
She couldn't understand why he would want to go.
In order for the terrorists not to ever come back here, he told her, we have to take the fight over there. She begged him not to leave.
It would be the last significant talk they ever had.
"The only thing I heard from that conversation," she says, "was that my dad was leaving and that he was going to a bad place. I was just crying and crying."
Mike, though, was living out his dream. At 16, he'd checked out a book from the library, went home and told his dad he would someday join the CIA. The next year, he earned his pilot's license. In celebration, he buzzed the football team during practice. He played wide receiver and running back.
He graduated from Auburn in 1992 and joined the Marine Corps as an artillery specialist, eventually earning the rank of captain. He switched over to the CIA in 1999 as a paramilitary officer.
Known as an avid parachutist, rescue diver and marksman, Mike was among the first Americans sent to Afghanistan to try to hunt down Osama bin Laden after 9/11.
By late November 2001, he was working with Northern Alliance troops at the Qala-i-Jangi compound, where hundreds of Taliban were questioned after capture. On November 25, he interviewed John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban who would eventually be sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to aiding the enemy. Two hours after that interview, prisoners carried out a revolt. Says Alison: "My dad was shot that day."
She was living in Virginia with her stepmother and siblings. She wasn't told why, but she was sent to her grandparents' home in Alabama. For a week, she wasn't allowed to watch the news or follow any current affairs, an odd thing since her father always stressed keeping up with world events. She didn't know it, but news outlets were reporting that her father was missing. She remembers watching a movie with her uncle when they were summoned into another room. Family members were gathered, crying.
Alison, your dad got hurt. Is he going to be OK? she asked.
No, he's never going to be OK.
"They didn't really come out and tell me he died," she says, "but that's how they explained it to me as a 9-year-old."
Among those who attended her father's funeral at Arlington was Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. He noticed Spann's three young children and couldn't help but wonder what would become of them.
The value of life lessons