Family of fallen Navy linguist fights regulation that forced her deployment to Syria
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | Stars and Stripes | Published: January 30, 2019
WASHINGTON — Navy Chief Petty Officer Shannon Mary Kent wasn’t supposed to be in Syria.
Last year, the 35-year-old mother of two was slated to attend a clinical psychology doctoral program near Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
But an obscure Navy rule and a previous bout of cancer derailed those plans and led to her fifth combat deployment instead. She was killed less than two months later.
Now, her family wants to finish the fight started by Kent to undo the regulation.
“The regulation still hasn’t been fixed and that’s something we’re working on now,” said Joe Kent, 38, her husband and father to their two children. “We’d like to change it in her honor.”
Shannon Kent, along with 18 others, including another U.S. servicemember, a Defense Intelligence Agency civilian and a Defense Department contractor, were killed Jan. 16 by a suicide bomber at a restaurant in the Syrian city of Manbij. She was the first female U.S. servicemember killed in Syria since the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign against Islamic State began there in late 2014.
Kent was part of a small, secretive cryptologic intelligence community. She was based out of Fort Meade, Md., and part of the Navy’s Cryptologic Warfare Activity 66, a unit within Cryptologic Warfare Group 6 that focuses on national, strategic and tactical level intelligence, military officials have said.
“She was doing intelligence legwork. They most certainly were not going out to lunch,” Joe Kent, a retired Green Beret warrant officer, said of his wife’s last moments. “They wanted to run down every last bit of ISIS.”
Kent was due to return to the United States by April. She had hoped to attend Officer Development School in June, followed by her postponed academic plans as part of her commissioning program in August.
Last year, the Navy essentially disqualified Kent from pursuing her doctoral studies because she previously had thyroid cancer.
“If we are healthy enough to deploy worldwide, why are we not healthy enough to pursue officer programs?” Shannon Kent wrote in an April 2018 letter to the then-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the late Arizona Republican John McCain, who died in August.
Joe Kent remains stunned at the Navy’s denial.
“It is pretty unbelievable she was considered physically fit to be deployable and … for a special operation in Syria, but not for a classroom to be a psychologist,” he said.
Last week, Kent’s family wrote to Adm. William Moran, vice chief of naval operations, to ask for his help to change the rule that they contend has blocked some enlisted personnel from becoming officers.
The family met Moran at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when Shannon’s remains were returned Jan. 19 from overseas. Kent is slated to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in the coming weeks.
“Before she is laid to her final rest, Chief Kent’s family requests that you make this change happen,” her father-in-law, Christopher Kent, wrote Moran on the family’s behalf in a Jan. 24 letter.
The Navy said the regulation is under review, but no final decision has been made.
“The Navy mourns the loss of a great sailor and offers condolences to her family,” said Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Eklund, a Navy spokesman. “The office of the vice chief of naval operations did receive correspondence from her family and has asked the chief of navy personnel to review the regulation regarding the physical examination standards for enlisted sailors seeking a commission.”
Fighting cancer and a Navy regulation
Kent, a marathon runner and then-mother of one son, started to feel lethargic in 2016.
That summer, the new mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer while her husband was deployed. Quickly, doctors determined she required surgery and her thyroid was removed.
“She didn’t exactly tell me” at the time, Joe Kent said. “She said, ‘I just had it cut out, it’s good.’ Treatment was pretty quick.”
There was no chemotherapy, and Kent received several scans showing that she was cleared of cancer in subsequent years.
The couple suspected the thyroid cancer was related to the burn pits that the 15-year Navy veteran was exposed to during her four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in her 20s.
As she fended off the cancer, Kent was completing her master’s degree in psychology through Chicago-based Adler University and applied for the Navy’s doctoral program in psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
Kent saw the program as the perfect solution to merging her new life as a mom with her work in the Navy. The Kents’ two sons were born in 2015 and 2017.
“She had found the pathway to do both, but it was yanked out from underneath her,” Joe Kent said. “She figured it fit in with where we were at as a family. She would not have avoided deployment, but she was a new mom.”
Kent wanted to help servicemembers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. And with that, there would be less chance she would deploy into combat zones.
“She was very interested in helping out veterans,” Joe Kent said. “She saw psychology…as a way to stay in the community to contribute to the fight and also help her fellow veterans.”
Kent was accepted and got initial Navy clearance to attend the psychology program in early February 2018. However, by the end of the month, that changed.
The Navy then said Kent had to meet higher medical standards reserved for joining the service versus the requirements for remaining an active servicemember. The service ruled her out from the program because of her previous cancer.
A regulation contained within several sections of Chapter 15 of the Navy’s Manual of Medical Department, which covers physical standards for medical examinations, lists several health conditions, including cancer, that can disqualify servicemembers from receiving a commission.
“The causes for rejection,” reads section 15-34 of the chapter, which goes on to list several health conditions, including “tumor of thyroid or other structures of the neck.”
Within days of her denial, Kent received orders deploying her to a combat zone, her family said.
“This is discriminatory not just towards me, but any enlisted sailor who has aspirations to commission from active duty,” Shannon Kent wrote last year in her letter to McCain. The Kents didn’t get a response to the letter, Joe Kent said.
But staff for Maryland Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen worked with Kent in her efforts last year. Van Hollen’s office took the lead on Kent’s case on behalf of the Maryland delegation, Cardin said.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent this past month,” Cardin said in a statement. “Chief Kent was an incredible leader who honorably served her country and the Navy. Ms. Kent worked with my office and Sen. Van Hollen’s office on an issue related to her eligibility to become a commissioned officer in the Navy.”
A rock star
A badass. A rock star. Super woman. A force to be reckoned with. These are the descriptions friends, family and colleagues share of Shannon Kent.
With her death, her husband, their 18-month-old and 3-year-old sons, and a wide circle of relatives and friends have been left reeling.
“She is the most patriotic person I have ever met. She loved our country, she gave her life for the country,” said Army Staff Sgt. Ali Hassoon, a longtime Kent family friend and neighbor. “She just wanted to serve and continue to serve.”
Hassoon met Shannon Kent at military training in 2013. Hassoon, a native Iraqi, didn’t know how to swim, but Kent taught him, he said.
Before her deployment, Hassoon’s family joined the Kents for Thanksgiving. Shannon Kent, who recently started working in ceramics and decorated her home with worldly influences, wanted to host a multicultural Thanksgiving, Hassoon said.
“She and Joe would have the turkey ready, we would bring the kabobs and dolma,” he remembered. “When we left, Shannon gave a hug that was a little longer. She said, ‘We will see you guys when I come back.’”
Hassoon said he admired the Kents and called them “patriotic.” The couple met at military training in Fort Belvoir, Va. in 2013. As Shannon attempted to park her car, she locked eyes with Joe standing in the parking lot.
Then, she plowed into another vehicle.
“She shrugged and I thought, ‘That is kind of funny.’ I was like, ‘This is a cool customer right here,’” Joe Kent remembered.
The Pine Plains, N.Y., native signed up for the military in December 2003 shortly after high school, fueled by the 9/11 attacks and her service-oriented family.
Her father, a state police officer, and her uncle, now a retired firefighter, were responders to the World Trade Center attack in New York City. Kent’s father, Col. Stephen Smith, is deputy superintendent and field commander for New York State Police, the agency’s third-highest ranking post.
Kent was gifted at picking up languages. She learned Spanish so she could talk with workers at the stables where she rode horses as a teen, her family said. In high school, Shannon Kent learned French in a few short months.
After 9/11, she wanted to learn Arabic. So in 2005, she graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. after learning four dialects spoken by Arabs, her friends and family said.
She also knew Portuguese, Hassoon said. Kent and Hassoon often spoke in his native Arabic.
“She was the best linguist I ever worked with,” he said. “She just loved languages. She just had an ear, she would pick up a language right away.”
When the Navy rejected Kent for the doctoral program and several subsequent waiver applications, she began researching how to fight the requirement that derailed her plans.
It was classic Kent, her friends and family said. She would come across an idea, tirelessly research and quickly figure out a plan to put in place by the next day, said Kay Kent, her sister-in-law.
In the summer 2018, Shannon, with her husband’s help, lobbied lawmakers from her home state of New York and new home in Maryland, where the Kents have lived for several years.
The Kents had hoped to have a new provision attached to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, legislation that dictates policy and spending at the Pentagon. They were not successful.
“We want the regulation changed…to retention standards,” Joe Kent said. “Basically, if you are fit enough to remain in the service, you should be fit enough to apply for a commissioning program.”
Still, the clock was ticking as a November deployment to Syria approached. And Kent didn’t want to desert her unit.
“She wasn’t going to avoid or run from or cry [over] a deployment,” Kent said. But “she had a good deal of anxiety of being separated from our sons. It was mixed emotions. She was very happy and proud to deploy for special operations to combat ISIS. But at the same time, there were late night conversations about being separated from the boys.”
A neighbor of the Kents was able to connect them with the office of Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a longtime vocal opponent of the post-9/11 wars. Jones, who is now battling health issues and in hospice care, also fought for Kent and wrote Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on her behalf.
“I am writing to ask for consideration of a potential policy change about the use of ‘initial entry’ medical standards as opposed to ‘retention’ medical standards in respect to officer accessions,” Jones wrote in the Aug. 17, 2018 letter to Spencer shared with the Kents. “I think these practices may be discriminatory while prohibiting upward mobility and advancement opportunities.”
Jones went on to ask in the letter whether it was possible to change the Navy policy to allow retention standards to be applied to enlisted personnel seeking entrance into officer programs.
On Tuesday, Jones’ office, dealing with the lawmaker’s failing health, declined to comment further.
Spencer responded to Jones’ letter, Joe Kent said. In it, they learned the Navy would issue a policy that directed a more expansive waiver process, raising optimism that Kent might finally attend her program this year, her family said.
But while in Syria, Kent ran into new roadblocks. The Navy required a blood sample, which was nearly impossible to provide from a war zone, her family said.
In the meantime, she kept in touch with the family through FaceTime, phone calls, texts and emails.
The day before she died, Shannon saw her husband and children in a FaceTime call. It was the usual chaos trying to keep two rambunctious boys on the screen, Joe Kent said.
They texted and laughed about it afterward, he said. She also wrote she needed to get to bed because she had an early outing the next day and would text again that morning.
Joe Kent didn’t know where his wife was going. They knew such sensitive details couldn’t be shared.
“She basically said, ‘I am going out this morning, I will text you back when I am back and safe,’” Joe Kent said. “And that was our last talk.”