Post-9/11 Team Alpha Mission Panel Kicks off Speaker Series
LEXINGTON, Va., Feb. 21, 2022—The Center for Leadership and Ethics kicked off the Courageous Leadership Speaker series for the spring 2022 semester with Toby Harnden, author of “First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11” and guests on Friday, Feb. 18 in Gillis Theater in Marshall Hall.
Immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA formed a handpicked team to go into Afghanistan, which included two VMI alumni who were in special forces. Details of the first mission post-9/11 into Afghanistan are told in Harnden's book. He is an Orwell Prize for Books winner and former foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and the Daily Telegraph. The panel presentation was moderated by Col. Dave Gray, director for the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics. Harnden shared the stage with Dave Tyson, CIA case officer, Scott Spellmeyer ’90, third in command of Team Alpha and a former U.S. Army Ranger, and Col. Justin Sapp ’94, who was a captain at the time. Each shared their insights on the lessons learned in terms of intelligence operations, improvised military response, and the principles involved in how the war in Afghanistan was fought. They also talked about the long-lasting impact of losing Alpha team member, Mike Spann, the first U.S. citizen killed in action in the 20-year war.
Harnden said he was inspired to write the book after seeing the look on Tyson’s face in a news segment. “I could just see the look in his eyes, and I thought, ‘He’s got a story to tell.,’” said Harnden. When Harnden contacted him, Tyson proposed they widen the scope of the story to include the other Team Alpha members. Harnden contacted them to learn about their experiences. “Each story kept popping out,” he said. “I did my best to build up trust and confidence that I was a serious person. I wasn’t going to cheapen their story. I was going to do it right.”
Cadets, faculty, staff, and community members got an inside look at the risky scenarios the team was put in those days after 9/11 when the world was changing so quickly. Alumni were also in the audience, including some of Spellmeyer’s and Sapp’s brother rats, and a cadet whose father had been a classmate of Spellmyer’s.
The panel shared some of their keys to success, which included knowing multiple languages, caring about people, and identifying the “least worst thing that can happen,” as Tyson explains.
Spellmeyer directed one statement specifically to the cadets in the room, especially to those commissioning in the U.S. military or going into national security on the civilian side. He advised them, “Be vigilant. There will be a time when it’s time for you to put up or shut up.” The risks Team Alpha faced were unprecedented. Spellmeyer characterized Harnden as a man of his word and “the goal [of the book] is to honor Mike Spann for his kids to be proud of him.”
After the panel discussion, attendees could meet the panelists and have them sign Hardnen’s book.
The Courageous Leadership Speaker series continues through the semester with the next event on March 3, featuring Andy Milburn, author of “When the Tempest Gathers: From Mogadishu to the Fight Against ISIS, a Marine Special Operations Commander at War.” Learn more about upcoming events hosted by the Center for Leadership and Ethics.
Maj. Michelle Ellwood
Communications & Marketing
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE