WASHINGTON – Even as fallen Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent receives another military honor Thursday, the family and friends of the Navy linguist said her work is far from done.
Kent, a 35-year-old mother of two, was killed by a suicide bomber Jan. 16 at a restaurant in the Syrian city of Manbij. It was her fifth combat tour.
In the weeks since her death, family and friends have delivered thousands of messages to Capitol Hill members in the forms of letters, emails and calls to overturn a Defense Department rule that led to Kent's deployment.
They've also collected more than 800 signatures for a MoveOn.org petition in support of the plan.
"It is disheartening to have a group of people reach out this many times and have it fall on deaf ears. It speaks to the bureaucracy we are working against to make this change," said Sharron Kearney, Kent's cousin and a New York City lawyer who is helping spearhead the efforts. "Shannon would have never let this go, so I owe it to her. It's the right thing to do."
Last fall, Kent was slated to attend a clinical psychology doctoral program in lieu of her deployment. But the Navy reversed the plan because she previously had thyroid cancer. So her waiver applications were rejected and she received orders to deploy to Syria instead.
Kent was killed less than two months later.
Earlier this month, the Navy revised its waiver process that led to Kent's deployment. But a Defense Department rule remains in place that forced Kent to meet requirements for new military entrants versus ones set for retention of active servicemembers. As a result, Kent was disqualified from her studies because of her previous cancer, despite having been cured of the ailment years earlier.
The Feb. 1 change will allow Navy officials to give the highest waiver consideration to deployed sailors, establish a standardized appeal process with an option of seeking a second medical opinion, require peer review of waivers to boost quality assurance and consistency, and require all medical authorities operate on the same software system to ensure continuity.
Those new rules are now reflected within provisions of Chapter 15 of the Navy's Manual of Medical Department, which covers physical standards for medical examinations, and lists several health conditions, including cancer, that can disqualify servicemembers from receiving a commission.
But Kearney argued the Navy wouldn't have had to make the changes if the Defense Department rule wasn't in place.
"It's not good enough," Kearney, 44, said of the Navy changes. "We feel it's a common-sense position that if someone is deemed medically fit to be sent to a war zone that they should be deemed medically fit to sit in a classroom to be a Navy psychologist. We see that as a soul-crushing obstacle."
A series of honors
Kent, a Pine Plains, N.Y., native, was one of 19 people, including another U.S. servicemember, a Defense Intelligence Agency civilian and a Defense Department contractor, killed in the Jan. 16 blast in Syria.
On Thursday, Kent became the third woman honored on a memorial wall inside the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. The National Cryptologic Memorial lists 176 military and civilian cryptologists -- the code-makers and code-breakers that protect U.S. communications and crack adversaries' systems -- who have been killed in the line of duty since World War II.
Kent was part of a small, secretive cryptologic intelligence community. She was based out of Fort Meade 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.
"The Navy Information Warfare Community suffered a tremendous loss when Senior Chief Kent was killed in Manbij, Syria, earlier this year," Vice Adm. Timothy "T.J." White, commander of the U.S. Navy Fleet Cyber Command and U.S. 10th Fleet, said Thursday in a statement. "She has trained a whole generation of cryptologists that will continue to proudly stand the watch. We are blessed that such warriors answer the call to military service at the highest levels of professionalism and capability."
The NSA issued a statement Thursday, saying Kent gave her life, "serving in silence," while supporting Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria on Jan. 16.
About 80 guests, including military leaders and Kent's family members, attended the service and unveiling of Kent's name embossed on the memorial wall. 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, the agency said.
"Senior Chief Kent, and all those honored on this wall, remind us of the seriousness of our mission…the defense of our nation," said Army Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the chief of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency. "Inscribed with the words, ‘They Served in Silence,' this wall is a constant reminder of the ultimate price paid for our freedom."
It's one of a series of honors for Kent, who was posthumously promoted to Senior Chief Petty Officer and awarded a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a Meritorious Service Medal, a Defense Meritorious Service Medal and a Combat Action Ribbon.
The honors were announced during a memorial service Feb. 8 at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Md.
On Monday, Kent's remains were taken by horse-drawn carriage to her final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.
"It added a note of finality. It's among the last times we get to honor her," Kearney said. "That was difficult to take. We all love Shannon so much, we could hold 1,000 memorials and it would never be enough."
Her friends and family had hoped Kent's burial at Arlington on Monday would come after the Defense Department overturned its regulation that led to her fifth deployment.
Moving the fight
However, with no word more than six weeks since Kent was killed, her family said they are focusing their fight on Capitol Hill. They hope lawmakers will move legislation that will force the change instead.
"We are pleased that the Navy corrected their waiver process in Shannon's honor," said Joe Kent, her husband and father of their two young sons. "However, the DOD has still not answered our call …This means there are likely numerous servicemembers being denied an opportunity to commission, as Shannon was."
The Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
On Feb. 4, lawmakers from Kent's home states of New York and Maryland wrote top Pentagon officials demanding they explain how they would update the Defense Department and Navy medical rules and waiver process that led to Kent's deployment. On Feb. 14, four House lawmakers, led by Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., introduced a resolution honoring Kent's life and imploring the Pentagon to address the Defense Department regulation.
The Department of Defense Instruction 6130.03, the "Medical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment, or Induction into the Military Services," requires servicemembers meet higher medical standards reserved for joining the service versus the requirements for remaining an active servicemember.
In Kent's case, that Defense Department provision ruled her out from the program because of the previous thyroid cancer in 2016. Her thyroid was removed, followed by several scans showing she was clear of cancer, her family said.
Last year, Kent was slated to attend the doctorate psychology program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Md. Kent wanted to attend the program so she could help servicemembers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, her friends and family have said. With that, she could also be closer to her children because there would be less chance that she would deploy into combat zones.
Kent got initial Navy clearance to attend the program in early February 2018, but they reversed plans by the end of the month and she was deployed to Syria in late November.
Kent was killed doing intelligence legwork as part of larger efforts to track remnants of ISIS, her husband has said.
She was due to return to the United States by April and hoped to attend Officer Development School in June followed by academic studies as part of her commissioning program in August.
"It wasn't just the Navy that was affected (by her death), she spanned so many different agencies, it crushed each agency in a way," Kearney said. "This shouldn't have to happen to anyone else."