How Shannon Kent Became a Trailblazer Among US Special Operations Forces

Shannon Kent, the subject of 'SEND ME: The True Story of a Mother at War,' is shown in Afghanistan in the 2010s.
Shannon Kent, the subject of 'SEND ME: The True Story of a Mother at War,' is shown in Afghanistan in the 2010s. (Photo courtesy of Joe Kent)

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "SEND ME: The True Story of a Mother at War" by Marty Skovlund Jr. & Joe Kent.

It was an overcast October day at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, perfect for weapons familiarization training. Shannon was the only woman in this Naval Special Warfare Direct Support Course class, and the only woman on the range that day. But that's not what she was thinking about; she just wanted to get to the part where she was sending rounds and burning brass.

"Point the weapon in a safe direction. That means not at your buddy, nerds!" The SEAL providing this block of instruction had no shortage of sarcasm, or disdain for support personnel for that matter.

"Verify that it's clear and safe, then return your Mk 48 to condition four. Then open the cover and feeding mechanism and place your dummy rounds on the feed tray. Then pull the charging handle back using an overhand grip, not underhand."

The SEAL paused for dramatic effect before repeating himself, "OVERHAND, not UNDERHAND!"

Yup, got it bud, Shannon thought. She was excited to be here, excited to be earning her spot in the special warfare community, but could barely stifle her own sarcastic inner monologue. She had worked with enough SEALs to spot when one was taking himself too seriously or carrying too much ego in his ruck. She figured it was the latter with this guy.

"Place the safety on safe, squeeze the trigger, and verify that the bolt does not go forward," the SEAL continued with his well-rehearsed monologue. "Push the charging handle forward and verify ..."

‘SEND ME: The True Story of a Mother at War’ was written by Marty Skovlund Jr. and Joe Kent.
‘SEND ME: The True Story of a Mother at War’ was written by Marty Skovlund Jr. and Joe Kent. (Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)

Shannon crashed onto the special operations scene headfirst and didn't slow down once getting in. After Shannon returned from her first deployment, she made a quick pit stop in Garmisch, Germany, for language training -- and a little snowboarding in the Austrian Alps -- before volunteering for the new Naval Special Warfare Direct Support Course, which would allow her to serve in combat alongside Navy SEALs. She was the first female to attend, but she wouldn't be the last.

The course was a month long and involved timed, graded ruck marches, runs, swims, marksmanship, advanced training in close-quarters combat, and other activities required to serve alongside Navy SEALs in combat. Women on the SEAL teams were a new concept at that point, but Shannon set the standard and high expectations for other women coming into the program, finishing third overall in her class.

She was permanently assigned to Naval Special Warfare Support Activity 2 in Norfolk, Virginia, where she worked side by side with East Coast--based Navy SEALs. The SEALs were initially hesitant, not because she was a female but because non-SEAL support, in general, was a new concept at that time.

Because she was the first female to go through the direct support course and make it, some didn't believe she belonged there; they'd never heard of that happening before. The comments ranged from snarky to pure disbelief at times.

She's been through direct support? 

Oh, no, she hasn't. There's no way.

But Shannon had the paperwork to prove it, and her performance at work always validated that piece of paper. It took a long time to get the course entered into her official records because people didn't want to deal with the ramifications of her having that qualification.

Every day after work, Shannon stepped off in a faded New York Yankees hat, brown T-shirt, black shorts, and earbuds to go for a run. She stayed quiet and humble, knowing actions speak louder than words and that she needed to earn her spot in Naval Special Warfare every day.

Shannon had been running her whole life and regularly used it as a way to show her physical prowess. Although contemporary special operators do a much better job at balancing cardiovascular endurance with weight training, the training philosophy was still very run-oriented in the late aughts. Anyone in SOF, from operators to support, was judged on their ability to keep up; dropping out of a run was akin to quitting. If you couldn't be counted on to keep up, how could anyone trust you to make it to target without falling out and potentially jeopardizing the success or failure of a mission?

A typical training day might start with the East Coast SEAL teams Shannon was assigned to running on a sandy beach in combat boots before swapping those out for fins to conduct a half-mile swim in the Atlantic Ocean. After returning, those same boots would be put back on (now soaked from the ocean) for the return leg of the trip. Everyone, SEAL or not, was expected to hang for what many called the "Friday Funny" or "Monster Mash" -- or simply the run-swim-run. Another typical run route took them from the Hot Tuna, a Virginia Beach restaurant popular with Navy SEALs stationed in the area, to the beachfront.

Shannon Kent was a Navy senior chief petty officer who was killed in the 2019 Manbij bombing in Syria.
Shannon Kent was a Navy senior chief petty officer who was killed in the 2019 Manbij bombing in Syria. (Photo courtesy of Marty Skovlund Jr./Coffee or Die Magazine)

But the First Landing State Park route was particularly difficult, where the strong were separated from the weak. The first time Shannon did this route, she rode standard military Blue Bird school buses out to the unofficial trailhead, which led into First Landing State Park. From there Shannon stepped off on hiking trails that criss-crossed throughout the park, taking runners up and down hills and stairs and crossing bridges over the marshes and through the forest. Andrew was a fellow special warfare sailor. (Editor's note: Andrew's unit name is being omitted at the request of the Defense Department.) When Shannon first showed up to the unit, he expected she could keep up just enough not to embarrass herself, thinking she looked like the type that was more worried about breaking a nail, never mind a sweat. The First Landing State Park trails were where Andrew first saw her in action. He ran alongside Shannon, trying to make conversation as they climbed the tree roots that formed the steps up the hills in the park. "The weather's great today, isn't it?" Andrew said. "Nice to get out into nature, right?"

"Yeah, nice weather today for sure," Shannon said, polite but unenthused.

"How do you like SA-2 so far?" Andrew said, using the short-hand for their unit. He was breathing hard and a bit surprised that Shannon didn't seem particularly fazed by the difficult terrain. He wasn't the fastest in the unit, but he typically finished unit runs in the top quarter.

"So far, so good," Shannon said. Her replies didn't leave much room for a conversation to bloom. They continued with the small talk for a while longer. Shannon was trying to be polite but grew anxious that she would be perceived as more interested in talking than running.

"I'm sorry," Shannon said. "But I'm going to go ahead and start running now because I'm trying to set a pace for the next time I run this trail."

Andrew was stunned. She wasn't even breathing hard. The next time he saw her, she had already finished her cool-down and was casually stretched as the other runners rolled in.

Slowly, Shannon gained the respect and trust of the SEALs in her new unit. She was a true professional who wasn't afraid to step into any challenge. Her type-A personality and knowledge of trade-craft got her noticed in a positive way. It was an uphill battle, but she was making progress. Eventually she was selected to attend a special operations training course in Louisiana with a few others from her new unit.

Their class coincided with Mardi Gras, but they weren't allowed to go into New Orleans until after the festivities had already wound down -- which also happened to be a week before they were scheduled to graduate. At that point, they were ready to blow off steam and have a few drinks.

They each started off with two Long Island iced teas at about 11 a.m. They proceeded to barhop from one location to the next, hitting everything from seedy hole-in-the-wall joints to swanky gay bars, doing their best to cure themselves of sobriety in the process.

Joe Kent co-authored a book about his late wife Shannon, who was killed in 2019 in Syria, titled 'SEND ME: The True Story of a Mother at War.'
Joe Kent co-authored a book about his late wife Shannon, who was killed in 2019 in Syria, titled 'SEND ME: The True Story of a Mother at War.' (Photo courtesy of Joe Kent)

The bayou barhopping continued well into the evening, and they eventually ended up at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street, drunk as the sailors they were. Inside, there were shrines of every variety adorned with skulls, beads, and more than a few voodoo dolls. Signs of varying sizes were posted everywhere, stating the obvious "nothing on the voodoo altar is for sale" or the more threatening "do not touch the voodoo altar or cops will be called." It was very clear the establishment did not want visitors to touch the voodoo altar -- especially the drunk ones.

But Shannon considered the signs more like a suggestion than a hard rule. She picked up a small figure sitting on the altar, and before she could ask how much it cost, the staff started hysterically yelling at her. Shannon was startled and knocked over the entire altar, breaking several of the delicate voodoo figurines.

"Oh shit," Shannon said.

"You will all be cursed for nine generations!" one furious museum staffer yelled.

"Last bar!" Shannon's friend Birddog yelled, giving the signal that it was time to get out of there before police were called. The small group of drunk special operations sailors immediately executed their E&E -- "escape and evasion" -- plan. They quickly melted into the New Orleans crowds, never to be seen again by the mystics who allegedly cursed them.

Shannon and her teammates laughed the whole way back to base and made it through their last week of training without incident.

"Wouldn't it be crazy if this plane goes Final Destination-style and crashes and we all die?" Birddog said on their flight back to Virginia Beach. In this way, Shannon's voodoo curse had followed her.

"If we start to crash, the last thing I'm going to do is punch you in the face," another said, looking at Shannon.

"Yeah, seems fair," Shannon replied, blushing ever so slightly. Fortunately, they made it home safely.

With the training course in Louisiana behind her, Shannon and her unit were about to leave for their next deployment to Iraq. As was customary, she and a few friends from work went out to a local bar in Virginia Beach frequented by frogmen for a few last drinks. AJ was a SEAL team leader out with his wife, and they were sitting at a table near Shannon's. His wife is Latina, and she overheard another woman in the bar, who was clearly not Latina, speaking Spanish perfectly.

"Who is that?" his wife asked.

"That's Shannon. She's new," AJ said, clearly impressed that she had caught his wife's attention. Shannon had successfully assimilated into her new unit and made a positive impression, even among the SEALs. Now it was time to go back to war.

Excerpted from "SEND ME: The True Story of a Mother at War" by Marty Skovlund Jr. & Joe Kent, published May 7 by William Morrow. Copyright © 2024 by Joe Kent and Marty Skovlund Jr. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

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