Alison Spann is only 21 years old and already she is living a faithful life of honor and courage, and commitment and dogged determination — character traits not readily recognized in many young people.
Miss Spann's stem from the sturdy family tree branch of Johnny "Mike" Spann, the first American killed in combat during the war in Afghanistan.
A rising senior at Pepperdine University, Miss Spann's voice slightly trembles when she speaks of her dad's fortitude, his tremendous sacrifice and her steady-as-a-rock military family.
Mike Spann, 32, was killed Nov. 25, 2001, in Mazar-e-Sharif. Working as a paramilitary officer in the CIA's Special Operatives Mission at a fortress holding al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, he was slain during a prison riot. The goal of the mission: get Osama bin Laden.
Five weeks later, during an already tough Christmas holiday season, Alison and her younger sister, Emily, and young brother, Jacob, lost their mom to cancer.
Alison was but 9 years old, a time when natural growing pains already have youths pushing the envelope and questioning their faith and values, laid out by their parents, as well as the natural boundaries of pre-adolescence. And even like many adults who lose a beloved, she asked God "why?"
"I've struggled with that since my dad passed away and my mom passed, especially when you're 9, raised in a Christian home [and] very involved in church."
You question whether he "turned his back on you."
Indeed, it's her unwavering faith and the Marine and Navy families that have always been there for her.
"We lived in Manassas and the families were there for us and us for them," Miss Spann said. "Same thing when we lived in Okinawa."
When the Spann family moved to Alabama, the military families stepped up again.
This time it was so that Miss Spann could attend Pepperdine, where she majors in communications.
"My dad was no longer in the Marines when he was killed, but families in the corps and their families embraced us as they always had," said Miss Spann, who is an intern in the office Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican. "For us, education was never an option. It wasn't a question of whether I'd go to college but where and how."
A four-time recipient of college scholarships from the Heroes Tribute Scholarship Program for Children of the Fallen from the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, Miss Spann is one of thousands of American children who have lost parents in the war, and she hopes to use her college education and her life experience in a career that melds communications and politics.
Miss Spann wavered not on issues.
"I'm a Republican," she said, straightening her shoulders as she added that she is a member of the Pepperdine College Republicans, where she wants to help keep students informed and involved.
"Young people, students our age can be so apathetic," she lamented. "Ask about what happened in Benghazi, Libya, and some of them would have no idea what you're talking about."
She is as opinionated about women serving in the all-volunteer armed forces — "it's an honorable choice," she said, adding, "but I also know what [being deployed] can do to family."
And women in combat?
"One of my best friends at Pepperdine is going into the Navy," Miss Spann said. "Everyone has a calling, a dream. If women feel that drawn to go, they should go for it."
While owning up to much that could have knocked young Alison on her heels, an older Alison is staying focused, like her father and mother, and military family, reared her.
She even had some sound grown-up advice for young people.
"They might not be eligible for a scholarship from the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, but the money is out there," she said. "I think a lot of people don't know where to apply. They should do the research and apply.
"Focus and dream," Miss Spann advises young people. "Something I always do is think about my mom and dad and what they went through, and all the strength that they had. I know I'm also strong, and that makes me feel good."
Alison Spann and other military families are due a profound Thank -you for their enduring commitment — for they, too, are American heroes.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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