EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
On a frigid November night in 2018, a group of armed Taliban terrorists detonated a car bomb outside the gates of Camp Anjuman, a British security compound in Afghanistan, and then stormed the buildings inside. While the gunmen destroyed the camp and everything in their paths, the survivors were evacuated into the adjacent NATO-managed Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan.
As the survivors streamed into safety, Kathy Lawhon ushered them in. Lawhon, Eglin’s housing branch chief, was deployed as a civilian for 18 months as the U.S. site manager at HKIA.
“The attack happened at dinner time and the survivors escaped with only what they had on,” explained Lawhon. “The survivors were traumatized, cold and had lost all of their belongings.”
According to Col. Bill Courtemanche, deputy base commander of HKIA at the time of the attack, more than 200 people were at Camp Anjuman during the attack and they sought hasty refuge with no opportunity to collect any belongings.
“Most evacuees arrived with no coats, many had no shoes, and some even had no pants. It was late November at 6,000 feet elevation in Afghanistan, and it was in the low 30s,” said Courtemanche. “Our base was already at max capacity so logistics were challenging to say the least. We pulled together enough infrastructure to provide the evacuees with cots in tents and feed them, but we had no supplies to provide personal provisions.”
As a retired Air Force officer, Lawhon’s 24 years of active duty experience kicked in and so did her drive to assist. Lawhon and her team quickly mobilized. She knew the survivors needed more than just a place to sleep. She needed to find supplies quickly, but she was limited by their availability, so Lawhon put out an all-call for donations.
Lawhon, who was responsible for providing installation logistics for the US contingent on HKIA, was a very recognizable member of the base. This made her highly effective at initiating a spontaneous call for humanitarian collection of personal items, according to Courtemanche.
“Her actions led a hasty collection of all kinds of clothing, toiletries, blankets, and footwear for personnel,” Courtemanche explained.
Lawhon went from units and contractors gathering any items that could be spared. She garnered support from many of the other 35 nations represented on base beyond just the US contingent, according to Courtemanche.
“All I had to do was ask. The evacuees were not American, but it didn’t make a difference to us,” said Lawhon. “There is good-natured cooperation between all of the allied forces. They needed us so we found a way to help them.”
When the terrorists overtook the British compound, they leveled the buildings. In addition to all of the evacuees’ personal belongings being destroyed, the evacuees’ passports and personal documents were lost as well.
Lacking passports and personal documentation created an additional challenge for the survivors. They were unable to immediately leave Afghanistan for their home country.
Lawhon even procured phone chargers for the victims so they could work on obtaining the documentation required to go home. When the donations didn’t go far enough, Lawhon, several of her co-workers, and some contractors pooled their money to purchase supplies for the group.
“We were fortunate to have numerous stores on our base, so Kathy coordinated the collection of funds to purchase items that also led to business donations,” said Courtemanche.
It was approximately two weeks before all of the victims were able to leave Afghanistan. During those weeks, Lawhon said she barely slept. She had to continue to do the job she was sent there for, plus the additional responsibility of helping the survivors.
Following the attacks, Lawhon’s comrades nicknamed her “The Iron Lady” because of her of unfailing strength and energy in her response to the emergency. Gen. Scott Miller, the head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, coined Lawhon for her efforts.
Although Lawhon is an Air Force veteran, her selflessness was not a result of combat preparation or job training, according to Courtemanche.
“Her spirit of compassion made her a truly unsung hero that night,” he said. “The amount of supplies she was able to muster in such a short time is a testament to her character. So many people knew Kathy, regarded her with the utmost respect, and didn’t hesitate to offer help.”