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
Alison didn't want to go.
We are taking a trip to Afghanistan, she was told. We are going to go see places where your dad was, where he was killed.
Her grandparents and stepmother were on their own journey through grief. Her father had told the family if he was ever killed to question everything -- even if he was really dead.
Alison's grandfather, the elder Johnny Spann, sought answers. Arrangements were made for the family to fly to Afghanistan and meet those who were with her father the day he died.
"I absolutely did not want to go," she says. "When the plane landed, I was beside myself."
At the tender age of 10, Alison stood in the spot where her father died. She glanced at the mud complex known as the Pink House where prisoners used grenades and AK-47s to break out and rush toward her father and other interrogators.
Perhaps the biggest lesson she learned from the trip was that not all Afghans were terrorists. She most remembers visiting an orphanage where widows cared for children.
"I think the people I met there impacted me more than the place did," she says. "My eyes completely opened to this world where, you know, everyone wasn't trying to bomb us and people weren't trying to kill us."
In her words, she learned everyone has a story.
Not lost on her was the fact her father died in a country where girls and women were denied equal rights. "My father was definitely about the strong, independent woman. ... He was definitely like, 'You go and get educated and get a job for yourself and make your own way in life.'"
Before she could do that, she had to grow up.
After Mike and Kathryn Ann died, her stepmom and grandparents decided all three of Mike's children should live together, at least for the next few years. Relations between children and a stepmom are tricky enough, let alone at a time of such vulnerability for everyone.
Shannon Spann had an infant, Jake, to care for and two stepdaughters to suddenly raise by herself. All the while, she grieved for her husband. "Before Mike and I got married," she says, "we prayed that God would make us a family, and we believe he did."
Yet Alison resisted. She fought back. She saw her stepmom as trying to replace her mother, and resented her. "I didn't want to have to deal with the fact that my parents weren't coming back."
Sometimes, she saw her stepmother crying, and couldn't understand why. "I was angry at her," Alison says. "It reminded me that it was real, and I didn't like that."
Her stepmother sees it differently.
"I wanted for us all to grieve together and for them to see the hard reality of that," says Shannon, who left the CIA in 2009.
Still, she admits she wasn't always as sensitive to Alison about the death of her mother "because I wanted to have that relationship with her -- and I regret that part."
"It's something grown-ups can't really appreciate," Shannon says, "the impact of what that really means to a 9-year-old girl, to lose both her natural-born parents within a month of each other."
The new family first lived in Virginia and then Australia, where they stayed from the time Alison was 10 to 13 while Shannon was on a CIA assignment.
Alison never told friends in Australia that her parents were dead. She just couldn't go there.
"It was just too much for me to comprehend."
After the family returned to the States, Alison spent her freshman year of high school at Langley High in McLean, Virginia. She became best friends with Becky Card. They attended football games, basketball games, chatted about boys. Becky says they "talked about everything normal kids do."
Sometimes, Alison would confide in Becky. "I had never had a friend who had endured so much in a lifetime. I was amazed she wasn't screwed up over it," Becky says.
Alison's life as a rolling stone continued. After her freshman year, she and her sister moved in with their grandparents in Alabama, a way of better connecting with her parents. Her half brother, Jake, remained with his mother, Shannon. Though they lived apart, Alison stayed in touch with her brother: "He looks just like my dad."
In Winfield, she finally felt at home. She attended the same school as her father. She excelled in academics and in track.
Her grandfather, Johnny Spann, found himself driving the girls to ball games, cheerleading practices, track meets, the movies -- at a time when all his friends were going on cruises and heading off to the golf course.
It was a job he relished.
I can never be your dad because you had a dad, he'd tell them, but I can try to do those things that your dad would've done for you.
He told them about their dad checking out the book at age 16 and knowing then that he'd join the CIA. He told them how their dad flew his airplane over football practice after he got his pilot's license.