Camp Lejeune Marine earned Swain award by helping Afghans
The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Marine Lance Cpl. Lauren Kohls can't talk much about her work in military intelligence, but others will be happy to do it tonight.
That's when Kohls, 23, a Brooke Point High School graduate who joined the Marines four years ago, receives a Corps-wide award for her work during a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
She found out she would get the Lance Cpl. James E. Swain Marine Corps Intelligence Enlisted Marine of the Year Award when friends saw the announcement in July and sent emails to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where's she's now stationed. Swain was killed in 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq.
"I was really shocked at first," Kohls, who returned from her deployment in December, said in an interview this week. She said others in her group there were just as deserving.
"We all worked really hard while we were deployed. I'm not just looking at just me as the winner. My whole shop was the reason. It's like a family."
She was deployed with C Company, 2nd Radio Battalion, Task Force Belleau Wood.
Kohls, who studied Spanish in high school and spent several weeks in Peru during one school year, initially thought she would join the Air Force, then changed her mind and decided upon the Marines. She attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., to study Pashto, which, along with Afghan Persian/Farsi, are the main languages of Afghanistan.
Kohls' first language-immersion experience was in Cuzco, Peru, where she worked as a teen volunteer in an orphanage in 2006. Her trip was featured in a Free Lance-Star article in February 2007.
"She obtained permission from the principal and teachers for her to go for five weeks during the school year," her mother, Joan Melville-Kohls, said.
Mentors, friends and family raised the $3,600 she needed for the trip.
"She was very brave to go by herself, to a Third World country for this effort," Melville-Kohls said. "She came back a changed girl. She decided she wanted to work [in] other countries in her future."
Lauren lived in Prince William County as a child; the family moved to Aquia Harbor in 1999.
Wendy Money, who works at Brooke Point and whose daughter, Katy Skerry, went to high school with Lauren, said she fondly remembers a "dedicated, motivated" student who took those skills into the military.
While in Afghanistan, Kohls worked with other linguists and translators.
Communicating with Afghans in their native language "is incredibly rewarding," she said.
"To me, one of the biggest problems over there is a language barrier between our troops and the people who live there. I wanted to learn the language and the culture" to help them understand what Americans are doing there.
Kohls and Sarah Abdella, another Pashto linguist, founded Hayla International, a nonprofit aid organization in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Hayla means "hope" in Pashto.
"We love the Afghan culture," Kohls said.
Hayla's focus is women and children. Its work continues, though Kohls and Abdella are back home.
"We started off with just donation drives, with blankets, clothing, school supplies," Kohls said.
"We're currently working on a curriculum of audio books, to offer opportunities to help women teach their children how to read at home."
After returning to the states, Kohls taught at a military language school in Texas. She hopes to eventually leave the military and do similar work for another government agency.
In the meantime, "I try to make it home as much as I can," she said. "My family is the most important thing to me."