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. service member, 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. service member 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.