In the spring of 2002, roughly eight months after the 9/11 attacks, I had returned from a deployment with SEAL Team 8, and had just recently become a plank owner of the newly-formed SEAL Team 10. I was working in the operations shop at the Team, as was common for a junior SEAL officer who was between platoon assignments and waiting to find out what the Teams had in store for him for the next two years. One day I was walking through the Team building and noticed a gaggle of SEALs in a hallway, surrounding a single SEAL in khakis. He stood out because the rest of us were all in the uniform of the day, which was PT gear.
Out of curiosity, I made my way over, and the first thing I noted was the hefty stack of ribbons sitting under his SEAL Trident, and the fact that he was a Chief (an enlisted E-7 sailor). I approached and heard another SEAL say to the Chief something along the lines of “Man, talk about good timing.” Then I noticed his name tag — “Bass” — and I knew instantly that SEAL Chief Steph Bass was back in Virginia Beach from his stint in England with the Special Boat Service (SBS).
Every active-duty SEAL alive and serving on 9/11 and the months that followed knew who Steph Bass was. He had instantly gone from just one more SEAL serving in a routine Personnel Exchange Program (PEP) billet in Europe, to the first SEAL to see combat in Afghanistan following the attacks on the United States. He had become the first war hero of the modern era for those of us in the Teams. He was the lucky one, finding himself at the right place at the right time to be one of the first Americans — and the first SEAL — to see combat against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
At that time, even within the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community, few of us knew the full details of what had happened to Bass and his SBS unit in Northern Afghanistan. We knew there had been a prison uprising of a large number of al-Qaeda fighters, among them “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. We knew that CIA officer Mike Spann had been killed, making him the first American to die in the War on Terror. We also knew that the British SBS and some U.S. Special Forces had engaged in an extended and harrowing battle with the al-Qaeda fighters, during which some of the Allied forces were hit with friendly fire from U.S. fighter planes supporting them in the fighting.
We, of course, also knew that Bass was the first SEAL to receive the Navy Cross since the Panama Invasion of 1989. Remember, this was 2002, and American forces had barely begun their 20-year Afghan campaign. Stories of battle and heroism in combat were only just beginning to trickle out of theater, and Bass’ was assuming legendary status even so soon after it had occurred.
For the rest of us in the SEAL community at that time, it was exactly the kind of thing for which we had signed up: taking the fight to an enemy in the name of the people back home, in the service of our country. We were in awe, which is saying something in the NSW community. SEALs are like firefighters, in that we are rarely ever in awe of one of our own. There are exceptions, of course, and Bass was definitely one of them in that moment.
Here we are, almost 20 years later, and only just recently has the authoritative account of that battle at Qala-i Jangi prison come to light. There have been pieces and parts of the story out there for years now, but the definitive account can now be found in Toby Harnden’s book, “First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11.” Harnden, a former foreign correspondent, interviewed dozens of individuals involved in the events, including politicians, CIA officers, Special Forces personnel, and Afghans. He was given unparalleled access by the CIA, no doubt eager to tell its officers’ story of heroism and dedication to duty.
The title of the book refers to Johnny “Mike” Spann, a CIA paramilitary officer who was the first American killed in combat in Afghanistan, during the prison uprising at Qala-i Jangi. However, the book is far more than a eulogy for one man (although it is assuredly that, and a fitting one). Instead, Harnden paints a panoramic picture of the landscape in northern Afghanistan in the weeks after 9/11, when eight CIA officers clandestinely entered the country as part of Team Alpha on October 17th, 2001, to link up with forces in the vicinity of Mazar-i Sharif led by Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Harnden introduces us to David Tyson, the Case Officer who had spent the most time in the region before 9/11 (and who spoke the language); to the team’s leader, J.R. Seeger, who at times clashed with the CIA Jawbreaker team that had landed in country first, in the Panjshir Valley; and to Justin Sapp, an active-duty Green Beret detailed to the CIA for the operation.
Harnden describes how the team acted as a pathfinder element for Army Special Forces Operation Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595 that would arrive three days later, the exploits of which were described in the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. He also describes how the combined CIA-SF team operated with Dostum’s forces behind enemy lines, successfully taking the strategic city of Mazar-i Sharif from the Taliban.
Harnden, of course, also introduces us to Steph Bass, and the members of his British SBS unit who were inserted as a simple Personnel Security Detachment (PSD) for SEAL Admiral Albert Calland, who was part of the military command structure that was just getting established in Afghanistan, in the wake of Team Alpha’s arrival. Little did the SBS men and Bass know that they would be drawn into the first major battle of the war. When called upon to act in dire circumstances, they performed heroically and with a tenacious, aggressive, and ferocious fighting spirit that impressed all of the other units involved, to a man.
While the details of battles on horseback, the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, the intrigue amongst the various Afghan warlords on the playing field, and the desperate battle at the prison are the meat and potatoes of the story that will draw most readers in — and they are presented with effective and gripping detail — the real heart of the book is the narrative centered around Spann, his wife and fellow CIA officer Shannon Spann, and Case Officer David Tyson, who was with Spann when he was killed at Qala-i Jangi.
Harnden takes us inside Spann’s family, and draws for the reader a touching, tragic, and sympathetic picture of what Shannon went through while Spann was deployed to Afghanistan. She worked concurrently as a CIA officer, while also taking care of her and Mike’s son, his two children from a first marriage, and at times, even Mike’s ex-wife, who would die of cancer shortly after Mike was killed in theater. Shannon’s ability to balance those struggles all while working a demanding job and worrying nightly for her husband, in addition to her stoicism and grace in the aftermath of Mike’s death, show her for the pillar of strength she was and no doubt remains.
Harnden’s depiction of David Tyson crafts a highly effective narrative of the relatively new CIA officer who spoke the language, knew the players, knew the country, and was thus an integral part of Team Alpha. The reader cannot help but feel deep empathy for Tyson as he struggles with the grief and guilt over Mike’s death, as well as the post-traumatic stress of living through the harrowing and deadly prison uprising. Harnden describes Tyson’s immediate devastating emotional response to the trauma, and also gives us a glimpse of his life and outlook in the years following. As far as I know, it is a story that has never been told before, and one that I could hardly step away from as I tore through the book in a few short days.
Some four years after meeting Steph Bass in that hallway at SEAL Team 10 right after the Battle of Qala-i Jangi, this author would find himself a few hundred miles away from the prison in Afghanistan, deployed as a Case Officer with the CIA, hoping to live up to the standards set by those first officers who had landed in the country right after 9/11. The story of the “first casualty” was well known to me by that point, and now Toby Harnden has done us all a service by documenting it for posterity. Do yourself a favor and read his book if you want to know how we responded as a country in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. You will not regret it.
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