Dayton Daily News
Her title: cryptologic technician; her occupation: warrior
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 last month 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 last 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 pull-ups 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.