Alison Spann walks purposefully behind the marble headstones, just as her father taught her.
He brought her here, to Arlington National Cemetery, as a girl. He pointed out the names of the dead and the wars that took their lives. He told her to look around and appreciate the sacrifice of the fallen.
The two walked together along the rows of headstones and turned when they got to a grave they were visiting. It was the proper way to walk in a cemetery, he told her, by not stepping where people are buried, a way of respecting them long after death.
Her father taught her many things. To be headstrong. To strive for a stellar education. To remember that a girl can conquer anything.
Today, Alison is the epitome of grace, her wavy brunette hair pulled back as she glides through section 34 of the cemetery. The whir of the nation's capital is drowned out here. Crickets chirp, cicadas buzz. A robin perches on a gravestone, almost as if watching.
As she reaches the fifth grave from the large oak, Alison turns and faces the headstone. It is her father's: Johnny Micheal Spann. Known as Mike, he died on November 25, 2001 -- the first American killed in the war in Afghanistan.
He was 32; she was 9 when dozens of friends, family and dignitaries came to Arlington on a frigid December day. They spoke of Mike Spann as an American hero, but she lost the man she considered her protector.
Etched in her mind is the final time she touched her father's casket.
On this summer day, she notes a road sign not far from his burial spot -- Grant Drive -- and finds peace. He told her Ulysses S. Grant was one of the greatest generals in American history and among his favorites.
"I knew he would've liked that."
The loss of her father was compounded 33 days later when her mother, Kathryn Ann -- "my best friend" -- died after a long battle with cancer.
Just like that, Alison was orphaned.
She comes to Arlington now to talk with her father about current affairs, to catch him up on her life. Raised by grandparents in Alabama and a stepmother she hardly knew, the fragile 9-year-old has blossomed into a thriving 21-year-old entering her senior year of college.
How she got to this point is testament to the strength of her parents and her dedication to their memories. Losing her mother and father, she says, "made me more resolved to do well, to really persevere in life and use the strength that they instilled in me in my own life, every day."
Yet for 10 years, she lived in denial. In her mind, she told herself her dad was on deployment and would one day return. It wasn't that she didn't believe he was dead; it was more about keeping the memory of her parents alive, for her own sake.
Then, one day last year, everything came crashing down. More than a statistic
Alison and her siblings -- Emily, then 4, and her half-brother Jake, then 6 months -- were the first children to lose their father in the Afghanistan war, which has claimed the lives of 2,264 Americans, many of them parents.
Some children adapt to the loss and figure out ways to press on amid profound grief; some excel, some flat-line, others become so devastated they can never fully function again.
The military has implemented an array of support programs for children experiencing such a loss, from grief camps to counseling. Yet there is no easy road map.
As the eldest child, Alison can still remember the lessons of her parents, yet she was still so young and impressionable when they died.
What might the country learn from her, a member of the 9/11 generation that has come of age with the nation fighting two wars?
She smiles and shows off a gold ring with a small emerald, her birthstone. Her father purchased some emeralds on one of his first deployments and had the ring made for her mother. Alison's mom gave it to her on the last Christmas that both of her parents were still alive.
"That's definitely my most prized possession," she says, "because I feel it's part of both of them."
Her mother and father had divorced by then. Her father married a fellow CIA officer, Shannon Joy, in early 2001. Alison and her sister moved in with the newlyweds in Virginia, not far from CIA headquarters. Her mother was sick, fighting ovarian cancer, and also living in Virginia.
Alison chooses to remember happier moments, when her parents were together.
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."