How the CIA Remembers its Fallen Heroes

| John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency

There’s one group you almost certainly did not hear mentioned as the news media and others on Memorial Day lauded, honored, and remembered our richly deserving military heroes – those who gave their all for our country.  I’m speaking of the CIA officers who have also given that last full measure of devotion in defense of our freedoms and our way of life. 

Most of us have someone in our family or among friends who wears a military uniform.  And it’s hard to go anywhere in the United States without seeing a storefront recruiting station for the Army, the Air Force, the Navy or the Marine Corps – or to sit through a movie without seeing a military recruiting appeal pop up among the previews.

Although the military draft ended long ago, the armed services are still part of the fabric of American life, as familiar a symbol as “mom and apple pie.”

Not so with the CIA. While increasingly the stuff of over-the-top, action movies, the Agency is still a mystery to most Americans, the least well-known and perhaps the most arcane part of the national security tool kit.  This is of course because most of what the Agency does remains secret, and its officers serve not only in silence but frequently undercover.

As a result, most Americans have probably forgotten that the first combat casualty in Afghanistan was a CIA officer, Mike Spann, who died in a firefight in Mazari Sharif in November 2001, or that CIA officers were the first on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11, with two teams inserted into the country a mere 15 days after the attacks.

Interestingly, when we sought to have Mike, a former Marine, buried in Arlington Cemetery, the bureaucracy balked.  I had to personally call Andy Card, then the White House Chief of Staff, who to his credit said simply: “I’ll take care of it.”  And today, Mike Spann rests in Arlington along with other heroes of the Afghanistan war.

The CIA commemorates its fallen heroes in a unique and quiet way.  In the entrance lobby of the Agency Headquarters in Virginia, the CIA carves in the right hand marble wall a star for each officer it loses.  There are now 117 stars Mike Spann’s star is number 79. The math tells the tale: well above one quarter of the stars have been carved into the wall since the attacks of September 11, 2001, making the intervening years among the most dangerous in Agency history.

All four of the Agency’s departments – operations, analysis, support, science & technology — are represented among the officers commemorated on the wall, although the largest number come from the operations group.

About a week before Memorial Day, I attended the annual memorial service in the CIA lobby.  The white marble lobby that day is always overflowing with family and friends of the fallen.  They are asked not to discuss details of the ceremony as this is the only time that the names of all those honored on the wall are read aloud; many of their names remain classified because of the operations they were involved in at the time of their deaths. 

What can be said is that the CIA Director makes remarks commemorating the sacrifices represented on the wall, usually telling the stories of those added most recently and referring to some of the historical background. Nearly every conflict the US has been in from Korea (the CIA was created in 1947) till today is represented among the Agency’s fallen officers. There is a musical selection, a wreath is placed, Taps is played.  It is a solemn, reverent, and uplifting day that reminds everyone of the CIA’s mission, the stakes involved, and the sacrifices its officers make – most often anonymously. 

There are at least 25 private foundations and groups to support wounded military service members and the families of those killed in action.  Until 2001, there was no such organization for the CIA fallen.  But in that year, a group of retired officers, led by now-deceased former CIA Director Richard M. Helms created the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation. 

To this day, the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation continues to have the exclusive mission of providing scholarships and other financial support to the families of CIA officers who die while on active duty.  In addition, the Foundation offers similar support to the families of CIA officers who are severely wounded while serving in war zone assignments abroad. 

The Foundation, which I chair, raises funds primarily to support the education of surviving children or spouses.  We do this through an annual dinner, regional fund-raising events, and individual donations via our website.  Our scholarship awards in recent years have grown to about $700,000 annually to cover 30-35 students and spouses.  Until recently, the support has been solely for undergraduate work, but in 2014 we branched into support for graduate work as well. We have also provided day care for surviving spouses who are going to school.

For its first years, the Foundation was an entirely voluntary organization that operated quite informally.  As the need for support has risen, the Foundation has moved to professionalize its activities under the leadership of its first full-time president, former senior CIA officer Jerry Komisar, hired in 2010.  The Foundation is now fully audited, its financial activity fully transparent, and it has earned the coveted “Four Star” rating from Charity Navigator, the organization that rates charities and that has given this award to only 17 percent of the 5000 organizations it surveys.

The Foundation is now actively considering other ways to assist the families of CIA officers, including counseling services for officers who serve in war zones or hazardous duty assignments, therapy for post-traumatic stress cases, and provision of specialized medical equipment for wounded officers not included in normal coverage.  Essentially what the Foundation seeks to do is to bridge the gap between support permitted by Agency regulations and the law and what officers may additionally need.

For the CIA there will never be any parades, never any brass bands. But on Memorial Day, its officers will always bow their heads with the same reverence for comrades as our brethren in the U.S. military.  For they know that CIA officers are often called upon to be the Nation’s “soldiers without uniforms.”

The Author is John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.  He served as the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000-2004 and Acting Director of the CIA in 2004.

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