WASHINGTON -- A group of key congressional members are demanding top military officials explain how they will update a series of medical rules and a failed waiver process that led to the deployment of a Navy linguist killed in Syria.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent, 35, a mother of two, was killed last month by a suicide bomber at a restaurant in the Syrian city of Manbij. She was on her fifth combat tour.
Last fall, Kent was to attend a clinical psychology doctoral program in lieu of the deployment. But the Navy reversed the move because she previously had cancer and rejected her waiver applications; instead, she received orders to deploy to Syria.
She was killed less than two months later.
"It is difficult to understand why the department would require a long, drawn-out waiver process when she was cancer-free and in remission," the lawmakers who represent Kent's home states of New York and Maryland asked acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer in a letter. "If CPO Kent was fit to deploy to a war zone, we believe she was fit to serve her country as a clinical psychologist."
The letter dated Friday was signed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and House Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C., Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md.
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 in Syria. Kent 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.
A private memorial service for Kent is slated for Friday.
The Pine Plains, N.Y., native enlisted in the military in December 2003 shortly after high school, fueled by the 9/11 attacks and her service-oriented family. She spoke seven languages, including four dialects of Arabic.
Last year, Kent was slated to attend the Navy's psychology doctorate program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. After the Navy blocked the move, she lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill for change, but her efforts to alter the rule stalled.
"The regulation still hasn't been fixed and that's something we're working on now," Joe Kent, 38, her widower and father of their two children, said last week. "We'd like to change it in her honor."
Shannon Kent wanted to attend the psychology program so she could help service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Joe Kent has said. With that, she also could have been closer to her children because there would have been less chance that she would deploy into combat zones.
She got initial Navy clearance to attend the program in early February 2018, but they reversed plans by the end of the month.
The Navy said Kent had to meet higher medical standards reserved for joining the service than the requirements for remaining an active service member, ruling her out because of the previous cancer.
A regulation contained within several sections of Chapter 15 of the Navy's Manual of Medical Department, which covers physical standards for medical examinations, lists several health conditions, including cancer, that can disqualify service members from receiving commissions.
"The causes for rejection," reads section 15-34 of the chapter, which goes on to list several health conditions, including "tumor of thyroid or other structures of the neck."
Jones, a longtime vocal opponent of the post-9/11 wars who is now in hospice care battling his own health issues, had asked Spencer last year to revise the Defense Department rule that led to Kent's deployment.
"I am writing to ask for consideration of a potential policy change about the use of 'initial entry' medical standards as opposed to 'retention' medical standards in respect to officer accessions," he wrote in the Aug. 17, 2018 letter to Spencer. "I think these practices may be discriminatory while prohibiting upward mobility and advancement opportunities."
Spencer responded to Jones on Sept. 20, writing the Navy could not change a Defense Department rule, entitled Medical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment, or Induction into the Military Services," but could address the waiver process that also stopped Kent's request. Lawmakers on Friday also referenced the exchange in their letter to Shanahan and Spencer.
"To our knowledge, the status of her waiver application was unresolved at the time of her death in Syria," the lawmakers wrote. "When service members like CPO Kent seek to continue their service but require a waiver to do so, providing efficient and thoughtful consideration of their requests is essential."
The lawmakers asked Spencer provide an update on the Navy's efforts to revise the regulations to ensure a clear mechanism to appeal waivers and to standardize the process. They are also requesting an update of Kent's specific waiver application.
The lawmakers also want a briefing from military officials on how it delineates between service members who meet retention and deployment standards versus standards required to enter the service.
"We recognize the importance in this distinction, as it allows some service members with medical challenges to remain in uniform and continue adding value to our military even though they would not be qualified to join as a new recruit," they wrote.
Kent was part of a small, secretive cryptologic intelligence community. She was based out of Fort Meade, Md., and was 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 killed doing intelligence legwork as part of larger efforts to track remnants of ISIS, Joe Kent said.
Shannon Kent was due to return to the U.S. by April and hoped to attend Officer Development School in June and her postponed academic studies as part of her commissioning program in August.
Last year, the Navy essentially disqualified Kent from pursuing her doctoral studies because she had thyroid cancer in 2016. The thyroid was removed and the cancer was cured that year, followed by several scans showing she was clear of the illness, her family said.
"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.
Last week, Kent's family wrote to Adm. William Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, to ask for his help in changing the rule that they contend has blocked some enlisted personnel from becoming officers.
The family met Moran on at Dover Air Force Base, Del., when Shannon's remains were returned from overseas on Jan. 19. Kent is slated to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in the coming weeks.
Shanahan's office declined to comment Monday on the letter, but said they will respond directly to the lawmakers. Spencer's office did not comment immediately. However, Navy officials have said the regulation is now under review.
"The first thing we ought to make sure that we honor Chief Kent for her tremendous sacrifice and her commitment to her oath to support and defend the Constitution," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told reporters Friday at the Pentagon. "We want to be mindful that we're standing and communicating with her family first and foremost as we work through this. And so I would just want to leave it there out of respect."
Stars and Stripes staff writer Caitlin Kenney contributed to this report.