Gun-tot­ing woman held her own in bat­tle zones

Bomb­ing vic­tim was more than cryp­tol­o­gist

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - RICHARD A. OPPEL JR.

Given who she re­ally was, the mil­i­tary had lit­tle choice in how it de­scribed Shan­non Kent. They said only that she was a “cryp­to­logic tech­ni­cian,” which any­one might as­sume meant that her most break­neck work was be­hind a desk.

In re­al­ity, she spent much of her pro­fes­sional life wear­ing body ar­mor and tot­ing an M4 ri­fle, a Sig Sauer pis­tol strapped to her thigh, on op­er­a­tions with Navy SEALs and other elite forces — un­til a sui­cide bomb­ing took her life in Jan­uary in north­east­ern Syria.

She was, in all but name, part of the mil­i­tary’s top-tier spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces. Of­fi­cially a chief petty of­fi­cer in the Navy, she ac­tu­ally worked closely with the na­tion’s most se­cre­tive in­tel­li­gence out­fit, the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency, to tar­get lead­ers of the Is­lamic State.

The past few years have seen a pro­found shift in at­ti­tudes to­ward women in com­bat roles.

Since 2016, com­bat jobs have been open to fe­male ser­vice mem­bers, and they have been per­mit­ted to try out for spe­cial op­er­a­tions units. More than a dozen have com­pleted the Army’s Ranger school, one of the most chal­leng­ing in the mil­i­tary. Some have grad­u­ated from in­fantry of­fi­cer cour­ses, and even com­mand com­bat units. And in Novem­ber, a woman com­pleted the Army’s gru­el­ing Spe­cial Forces As­sess­ment and Se­lec­tion course, the ini­tial step to be­com­ing a Green Beret.

Yet Kent il­lus­trates an un­spo­ken truth, that for many years women have been do­ing mil­i­tary jobs as dan­ger­ous, se­cre­tive and spe­cial­ized as any­thing men do.

She would some­times muse that con­ver­sa­tion, even with peo­ple who had top se­cu­rity clear­ances, would be sim­pler if she could just join a spe­cial op­er­a­tions unit.

“She’d tell me, ‘You can say what you do in two words, but I have to ex­plain over and over to peo­ple what I do, and half of them don’t be­lieve me’,” said her hus­band, Joe Kent, who re­cently re­tired af­ter a 20-year ca­reer in the spe­cial forces.

“As the years went on, she wished she could just say, ‘Hey, I’m Joe, and I’m a Green Beret.’”

“In many ways, she did way more than any of us who have a funny green hat.”

Only in death can friends and fam­ily talk about a life that showed just how far women had qui­etly ad­vanced into the nu­cleus of the na­tion’s most elite forces.

“Her job was to go out and blend her knowl­edge of cryp­tol­ogy and sig­int and humint to help the task force find the right guys to paint the ‘X’ on for a strike or a raid,” Joe Kent said.

Cryp­tol­ogy is code break­ing; sig­int is sig­nals in­tel­li­gence, like in­ter­cept­ing and in­ter­pret­ing phone calls and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions; humint is hu­man in­tel­li­gence, the art of per­suad­ing peo­ple, against their in­stincts, to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion.

At 35, Shan­non Kent was ex­pert in all three. Her hus­band cred­its a knack for glean­ing in­for­ma­tion picked up from her fa­ther, a life­long po­lice of­fi­cer.

“She un­der­stood how all the pieces came to­gether,” he said. “She wasn’t just re­ly­ing on lo­cal in­for­mants. She knew how to fill in the gaps through her knowl­edge of dif­fer­ent in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­i­ties. She was kind of a one-stop-shop for find­ing bad guys.”

Kent spoke a half-dozen Ara­bic di­alects and four other lan­guages. She was one of the first women to com­plete the rig­or­ous course re­quired for other troops to ac­com­pany Navy SEALs on raids. She could run a 3:30 marathon, do a dozen full-arm-hang pullups and march for miles with a 50-pound ruck­sack.

She did this while rais­ing two boys, now ages 3 and 18 months, and, for a time, bat­tling can­cer.

She used her five over­seas com­bat de­ploy­ments to mas­ter the col­lec­tion of hu­man in­tel­li­gence, gain­ing the trust of tribal lead­ers, mer­chants, and lo­cal govern­ment of­fi­cials who con­fided in her, of­ten at great risk to them­selves.

That is the kind of mis­sion she had been on Jan. 16, when a bomber killed her and three other Amer­i­cans at a restau­rant in Man­bij, Syria. The Is­lamic State claimed credit for the at­tack. She be­came the first fe­male ser­vice mem­ber to die in Syria since U.S. forces ar­rived in 2015.

More than 1,000 peo­ple at­tended Kent’s me­mo­rial ser­vice at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in An­napo­lis, Md., where she was posthu­mously pro­moted to se­nior chief petty of­fi­cer and awarded five medals and ci­ta­tions. The awards de­scribed her spe­cial op­er­a­tions work and also said she had been the non­com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer in charge at the NSA’s op­er­a­tions direc­torate for four years.

By the time the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were reach­ing their high­est pitch, women had been trained as in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tors, lin­guists, in­ter­roga­tors and other spe­cial­ties that put them on the front lines.

That Kent’s last as­sign­ment was in north­east­ern Syria, where Amer­i­can forces work with the Kur­dish mili­tia, was fit­ting: There are many fe­male fight­ers and com­man­ders in the Kur­dish forces.

“Women have been on the front lines with spe­cial op­er­a­tors for 16 years,” said Gayle Tzemach Lem­mon, au­thor of a book about fe­male troops work­ing with elite forces in the com­bat zones of Afghanistan. “But be­cause that com­mu­nity is un­seen and so rarely talks about their work, it’s been hard to know how much women have done.”

Kent de­vel­oped skills that have be­come crit­i­cal over the past two decades, in­clud­ing the im­me­di­ate ex­ploita­tion of doc­u­ments, hard drives and other in­tel­li­gence found dur­ing raids, and so­phis­ti­cated meth­ods of tar­get­ing that com­bined eaves­drop­ping, hu­man in­tel­li­gence and re­la­tion­ship map­ping.

In her first com­bat ro­ta­tion, in 2007, she worked with the Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand in Balad, Iraq. She did two more ro­ta­tions in Iraq be­fore a long stint at a re­mote out­post in Zabul province, Afghanistan, in 2012, where she won awards for be­ing a top hu­man in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tor and lin­guist.

Early in her ca­reer her lan­guage skills and easy man­ner had made her good at “tac­ti­cal ques­tion­ing” of peo­ple dur­ing mis­sions. “That was her foot in the door,” Joe Kent said.

“Back then I don’t think SEALs were en­thu­si­as­tic about talk­ing to lo­cals, and Shan­non found a place where she could be of value, and she poured her heart and soul into it,” he said.

The Kents first met dur­ing in­tel­li­gence tar­get­ing train­ing at Fort Belvoir, Va., where Joe Kent had been as­signed to an Army Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions com­mand af­ter seven de­ploy­ments to Iraq. They were mar­ried Christ­mas Eve 2014.

“We got set up by an­other girl who does the same stuff,” Joe Kent said. “It’s a pretty in­su­lar type of com­mu­nity, and we had sim­i­lar life ex­pe­ri­ences.”

But for a can­cer di­ag­no­sis — and the Pen­tagon bu­reau­cracy — Shan­non Kent would not even have been in Syria.

Af­ter so many hard mis­sions and be­com­ing a mother, she had de­cided to be­come a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and treat vet­er­ans with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

That meant be­com­ing a Navy of­fi­cer and spend­ing six years study­ing and train­ing. She was sched­uled to go to the Navy’s Of­fi­cer De­vel­op­ment School in Rhode Is­land in June, and to be­gin her classes for her doc­tor­ate in the fall.

But she had been di­ag­nosed with thy­roid can­cer in 2016. She told her hus­band, then on a de­ploy­ment, only af­ter the surgery was suc­cess­ful.

“She just sent me a pic­ture of her throat scar and said, ‘I had a lit­tle can­cer, but I got it cut out. I didn’t want to bug you,’” Joe Kent said.

Even though she was con­sid­ered can­cer-free, the mil­i­tary’s rules blocked her from be­com­ing a com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer. But the rules still al­lowed her to de­ploy to the most hard-fought com­bat zones.

She pressed her case with con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and her hus­band fol­lowed up with the Navy af­ter her death. This past week, the Navy mod­i­fied its rules to make it eas­ier for en­listed ser­vice mem­bers who wish to be­come of­fi­cers to pe­ti­tion for med­i­cal waivers.

“The Navy fixed ev­ery­thing that kind of screwed Shan­non,” Joe Kent said.

“She un­der­stood how all the pieces came to­gether. She wasn’t just re­ly­ing on lo­cal in­for­mants. She knew how to fill in the gaps through her knowl­edge of dif­fer­ent in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­i­ties. She was kind of a one-stop-shop for find­ing bad guys.”

—Joe Kent

Hand­out via The New York Times

Shan­non Kent is shown dur­ing her first com­bat de­ploy­ment to Iraq in 2007. She spoke a half-dozen Ara­bic di­alects and four other lan­guages, showed the en­durance needed to go on raids with Navy SEALs and was rais­ing two young boys.

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