Stars on the wall at CIA headquarters tell Memorial Day tale
The CIA’s Memorial Wall is in the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building. For years, when I walked into CIA headquarters, I would greet the security officer while looking at the stars on the wall commemorating our fallen heroes. And when I departed, I would repeat the same ritual, deep in thought, about those whom we had lost and how we could best honor their legacy.
CIA officers serve our country in anonymity, and that secrecy remains for some even after they made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country. That’s why the “Book of Honor,” which sits beneath the Memorial Wall, displays stars with corresponding years of death for some of the fallen, but not all.
I will never forget joining the families of the fallen at the CIA’s memorial ceremony, which takes place around Memorial Day when our nation honors our military veterans. Together we remembered and celebrated our heroic comrades. As then-CIA Director David Petraeus eloquently said of those we lost: “Never for acclaim, always for country.”
Thirty-one stars were chiseled into the marble when the Memorial Wall was created in 1974. Just prior to Sept. 11, 2001, there were 78 stars. Johnny Micheal “Mike” Spann, the paramilitary officer in CIA’s Special Activities Division who was the first American killed in combat during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, is the 79th star. Today, there are 139 stars on the wall.
The CIA Memorial Wall symbolizes the agency’s mission to grapple with the most wickedly challenging threats to our nation’s security. It means exfiltrating sources from behind enemy lines against all odds; recruiting spies and stealing secrets in “denied areas” such as China, North Korea, Russia and Iran; and deploying to war zones and serving in harm’s way to preempt terrorist threats before they could be visited on our shores.
Above all, it means to never, ever give up. Temporary setbacks are learning opportunities and steps toward eventual success. And most of all, honor those whom we have lost along the way — in faraway places such as Khowst, Baghdad and Benghazi — by relentlessly focusing on the mission at hand.
That’s why I invited my CIA colleagues to the Memorial Wall to help me commemorate my last day as a staff officer, in 2017. I stood in awe with my wife, Kim, her parents, sister, brother-in-law, and our sons as hundreds of my friends gathered at the entrance to the CIA’s old headquarters building to send me off.
I had moved up my retirement to the day before Kim was scheduled for highly invasive and arduous Whipple surgery to remove a cancerous tumor discovered only weeks earlier in her pancreas. Standing in front of the Memorial Wall while holding my sons and Kim close, I thanked my friends. I was deeply honored to have served with them. They would carry on the mission, which had, for me, reached its conclusion.
And then I thanked Kim for all of her love and support, without which none of whatever success I had achieved at the CIA would have been possible. Holding her tightly, I said the best thing that ever happened to me at the agency, by far, was meeting her by chance when she was working as a CIA disguise technician and was randomly chosen to outfit me before an overseas assignment.
At that moment, my friends started to clap for her. While the standing ovation carried on for a few minutes, I thought of what Kim and I had been through together — my last unaccompanied assignment in an overseas war zone, where we were on that very day, and the unknown, foreboding path that lay before us.
I held my family close, thanked the security guard as I turned in my blue ID badge, and walked out of the building looking up at the stars on the wall for the last time as a CIA staff officer.
This was not how I ever imagined spending my last day at the CIA. Kim would fight cancer for four years, enough time to prepare me for the awesome responsibility of raising our sons on my own before she died on March 15, 2021.
The philosopher William James said, “The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.”
As we observe this Memorial Day together, my sons and I will remember our departed heroes and reflect with reverence on their extraordinary legacy of service to our nation.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.