‘Why am I here and she’s not?’: Gold Star Husband Joe Kent Still Struggles to Make Sense of Wife’s Death

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Joe Kent’s wife, Shannon, was killed in Syria in 2019. Photo courtesy of Mariah Smith.

There was no knock on the door for Joe Kent. No black car with two uniformed officers coming to give him the news like you so often see in the movies.

He was working for the government on a classified mission on Jan. 16, 2019, when he heard about the attack in Manbij, Syria, that killed four Americans — two of them women.

And he knew, deep down, that one of them was his wife.

“I’m okay with the way it happened,” he said — finding out before military Casualty Assistance even knew to contact him with the news that his wife of four years, U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent, had been killed by a suicide bomber while on a Special Operations mission at the age of 35. “It was really traumatic, but there was so much that I knew kind of had to happen.”

Joe and Shannon Kent with their sons. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Joe and Shannon Kent with their sons. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Kent’s own 20 years of Special Operations military training and instincts kicked in, and he started thinking like a soldier, focusing not on the situation, but on specific tasks — calling Shannon’s parents before they heard the news from complete strangers and breaking the news to his own parents, who were watching his kids at the time.

“I think just from having a background and having to deal with a lot of stress consistently and still function, I think that kind of got me through,” he said. “Had I been at home and gotten a knock on the door and all I had to deal with was processing the loss, I think it would’ve been completely different. In a way, I had the emotional buffer, so to speak. I had tasks that I had to do.”

It wasn’t until about a month later that it really hit him: Shannon wouldn’t be coming back.

And all the military training in the world still can’t help him make sense of it.

Joshua Rowson, left, and Joe Kent in Baghdad 2004. Photo courtesy of Joshua Rowson.

Joshua Rowson, left, and Joe Kent in Baghdad 2004. Photo courtesy of Joshua Rowson.

‘Memorable encounter’

Kent, who will turn 40 this month, wanted to be in Special Forces for as long as he can remember.

“It’s all I ever wanted to do was something military — G.I. Joe, A-Team like,” he said. “I kind of had my mind made up when I was a little kid.”

By the time he was in middle school, he had a plan: He’d enlist in the U.S. Army at 18 and train to become a Green Beret.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened during his first week of Special Forces Assessment and Selection, and Kent emerged from training a month later to a completely different world. Kent, who had also served three years as an Army Ranger, would go on to deploy 11 times — eight with the 5th Special Forces Group and three with a special operations task force — before his retirement as a Chief Warrant Officer 3 in 2018.

Rowson, Kent, and a fellow Special Forces soldier get ready for a low-visibility recon mission into Baghdad. They did several of these a week, dressing like locals, driving local cars and taking Iraqi Commando recon soldiers with them. Photo courtesy of Joshua Rowson.

Rowson, Kent, and a fellow Special Forces soldier get ready for a low-visibility recon mission into Baghdad. They did several of these a week, dressing like locals, driving local cars and taking Iraqi Commando recon soldiers with them. Photo courtesy of Joshua Rowson.

It was on one of those deployments to Baghdad, Iraq, in 2007, that he met Shannon, a Navy linguist and cryptologic technician. It was a “very brief but memorable encounter,” he said, but their units moved locations before he could get her email or phone number. They didn’t see each other again until 2013 in a Virginia parking lot. Shannon was parking her car when she saw him walking, started staring, and hit a curb.

“They were soulmates, and that was palpable from the first time that I saw them together and every time after that,” said Mariah Smith, Shannon Kent’s younger sister. “Seeing Joe and Shannon together was like, ‘Wow, [love] is a real thing.’ You could be around them for a minute and know that.”

The couple got married Christmas Eve of 2014 and had two sons, Colton Blake and Joshua Brett, whose middle names honor Joe and Shannon Kent’s close friends who were killed in action.

Shannon and Joe Kent in the home they shared in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Shannon and Joe Kent in the home they shared in Maryland. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

A ladder to heaven

“Colt is very much like me, looks like me, and kind of has a lot of my same mannerisms,” Kent said. “He kind of powers through stuff.”

Josh, the youngest, looks more like his mom, has her mannerisms, and is very detail-oriented. Kent thinks their son also got his wife’s knack for language — she spoke several — because he started talking early on and is able to express himself very well for his age.

The boys were 3 and 1 when their mother was killed. Kent consulted a child psychiatrist about how to tell them and was advised to speak very bluntly.

“I said, ‘Mom was fighting for our country, she was at war, and the bad guys killed her and now she’s in heaven.’”

Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Colt, now 4, talks frequently about airplanes and high ladders that he can use to go see Mom. It used to catch Kent off guard, but not anymore. He just explains, “She’s alive in our hearts, but we’re not going to physically see her again.”

Colt, at least, has memories of his mom. But Josh never will, though he talks to her pictures around the house.

“The injustice is so heartbreaking,” Kent said. “I know there’s nothing Shannon would have liked more than to see them grow up and get big and be healthy and thriving.”

Kent has lost countless comrades to war. But this is different. And the old adage “time heals all wounds” almost makes things worse.

Shannon with son Josh. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Shannon with son Josh. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

“I can look back on friends I lost 14, 16 years ago when this whole thing started … and it kind of breaks my heart, basically, because I know their families remember them, and I know all my friends — we remember them, but it’s so distant. And to think someday that’s going to be Shannon is just incredibly depressing,” he said.

“There’s no solution to that,” Kent continued. “I don’t know what the solution is. It’s just this kind of constant thing you have to deal with.”

A dramatic shift

After Shannon died, Kent left his government post and moved from their home in Maryland back to his hometown in Oregon. He and the boys now live two blocks away from his parents, who help out with the children sometimes while he works from home as a project manager for a technology firm.

His close friend of 15 years, Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joshua Rowson, said Kent realized what his priorities were and hasn’t looked back.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

“Joe had got his dream job post retirement — was kind of doing really good things working for the government right where he wanted to be. Top of his career field, nothing but promising career ahead of him,” Rowson said. “After Shannon was killed, Joe decided that family was going to come first for him.”

Rowson said people are constantly trying to recruit his friend back into the business, but Kent turns them down because he doesn’t want a job that would take him away from his kids.

“You go from having the most exciting, adventurous, dangerous, most rewarding job in the world to now you’re home with your kids all day. It’s a massive shift in what you’re doing,” Rowson said. “Joe’s ability to do it is really, really impressive.”

Still, Kent admits it’s not been easy.

Kent with sons at their home in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Mariah Smith.

Kent with sons at their home in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Mariah Smith.

“I mean, I kind of had to deal with transitioning away from everything military, government that has kind of defined my life from the time I was 18 on. That’s been difficult. And then physically moving on to Oregon without Shannon has been really, really weird,” Kent said. “One day it feels wrong. One day it feels right.”

There’s also the adjustment to life as a single dad.

“Single moms are normal,” he said. “Most folks know to maybe tread lightly [on the] ‘is the dad in the picture’ question. And then people will assume I don’t have full custody and at some point Mom is going to come pick up the kids.”

Smith, who lived with the Kents for a while to help out after their first son was born, said she’s been in awe of how her brother-in-law has handled the last year as a father while grieving his wife.

“He hasn’t been selfish for a second,” she said. “He’s really been focused on the boys and providing the best life for them that he can in her absence.”

Kent with son Colt at their home in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Mariah Smith.

Kent with son Colt at their home in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Mariah Smith.

What’s next

Kent said he isn’t the same person he was a year ago. His core remains, sure. But he’s “changed a good deal.”

“My perspective on how short life is and how much I need to spend as much time with my kids and make sure they make it through this as unscathed as possible — that’s kind of like my priority,” he said.

He’s also taken up a new mission: advocating to change a policy that medically disqualified Shannon from entering a Navy Ph.D. psychology program and receiving an officer commission because of a short bout with thyroid cancer in 2016.

Had she been cleared, she would not have been on her fifth combat deployment in Manbij, Syria, on that fateful day in 2019.

Shannon Kent making the rounds while pushing for a change to Navy regulations that prevented her from commissioning as an officer. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Shannon Kent making the rounds while pushing for a change to Navy regulations that prevented her from commissioning as an officer. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

“By Navy standards, she was fit to deploy with the premier special operations unit in the world on the front lines of Syria, but she was not fit to sit in a classroom,” Kent said.

His wife fought for a waiver while she was alive, and Kent has continued the effort to help others since her death. Already the Navy has revised its rules in her honor, though Kent would still like to see the Defense Department take a closer look at similar policies across all branches.

Meanwhile, Kent has taken up writing as well, occasionally weighing in on foreign policy and helping to tell his wife’s story in the media. He’s currently co-writing a book about her with Coffee or Die Editor Marty Skovlund Jr., for which Kent is in charge of recording the details of their love story and family life.

“When she was killed, the one thing that I knew I wanted to do was tell her story,” he said.

Shannon Kent on a deployment while assigned to NSW Support Activity 2. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Shannon Kent on a deployment while assigned to NSW Support Activity 2. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

If he had died, his Army Ranger-turned-Green Beret title and combat record would’ve made people say, “He was a badass,” Kent said. But because Shannon was a woman, she didn’t have an elite title like “Navy SEAL,” and many people want to concentrate on her being a wife and mother.

“I appreciate it, but at the same time, she spent her adult life training and going to war and hunting our enemies,” he said. And even she never fully realized how exceptional she was, professionally — something he wants to make sure is preserved for her legacy.

As an observer, Smith said she thinks the writing has helped Kent through the grieving process. She’s watched the once-guarded warrior who couldn’t talk much about his work begin to open up.

“He’s begun to share her story and share their story and be willing and open to talking to the public and willing to let certain people in, whereas he never would have before,” Smith said. “I think that he’s devoting a lot of his energy to immortalizing [Shannon] and making sure that people know who she was and that she didn’t die in vain.”

Shannon Kent making the rounds while pushing for a change to Navy regulations that prevented her from commissioning as an officer. Photo courtesy of Joe Kent.

Kent with son Josh at their home in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Mariah Smith.

Rowson said Kent’s loss is not something his friend will ever move past. But he is moving forward.

“I think as far as being on that trajectory to being content with his life and being where he needs to be emotionally and spiritually, I think he’s about there,” Rowson said.

Kent credits a lot of that to his military background, which helps the events surrounding his wife’s death not to be so foreign and distant, and he doesn’t have many of the same questions that other Gold Star spouses might.

“I can very much visualize the mission that she was on,” he said. “I even know some of the folks that were there because it’s a small community.”

But it’s that same military background that also plagues him. He had been in combat more times than Shannon had and made it out without a scratch. The question, “Why am I here and she’s not?” still keeps him up at night.

“I feel like finding solutions to hard problems is something that I can do,” Kent said, because he’s been doing it his entire adult life. “But this one, there’s no solution to.”

Natalie Gross is a multimedia freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She previously covered veterans’ issues for Military Times and has also worked as a local news reporter in New Mexico and Texas. Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University.
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