COMUSAFE presents medal of distinction to German doctor

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Markus M. Maier
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe Public Affairs
Gen. Mark Welsh, U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander, presented the USAFE Medal of Distinction to a German doctor during an emotional ceremony at USAFE headquarters here March 2, 2012.

Professor Dr. Kai Zacharowski was honored for his role in saving the lives of two USAFE Airmen who were critically injured during a shooting incident at the Frankfurt International Airport, Germany one year ago, which also claimed the lives of two other Airmen.

"One year ago today, a very disturbed young man followed a group of American Airmen out of a terminal at Frankfurt International Airport to a waiting bus," General Welsh said. "And as they finished loading, he walked up behind the last Airman to board the bus, completely unsuspecting, and shot him in the head. He then stepped onto the bus and shot the driver, and then turned to fire seven more shots into the group of young men and women who were standing in the aisle or settling into their seats."

The driver of the bus, Airman 1st Class Zachary Cuddeback, 86th Vehicle Readiness Squadron, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and passenger Senior Airman Nicholas Alden, 48th Security Forces Squadron, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England both died at the scene.

Staff Sgt. Kristoffer Schneider and Senior Airman Edgar Veguilla, also with the 48th SFS, were transported with life threatening injuries to the Johann-von-Goethe University Clinic Emergency Hospital in Frankfurt into the care of Zacharowski.

"The first night no one thought Sergeant Schneider would survive," General Welsh said. "Over the next two weeks Dr. Zacharowski led the effort to mend [Airman Veguilla,] repairing his ribs, his jaw and his arm; and to somehow bring Staff Sgt. Kris Schneider back from death, because that's where he was. Slowly, the magic the medical team performed, and some other power they brought to the effort, turned the tide. It was an unbelievable thing to watch."

The general went on to share that the doctor truly went above and beyond, sharing that Dr. Zacharowski not only cancelled a conference for which he was scheduled to be the keynote speaker, but he also cancelled the family vacation that he, his wife and their two sons were to take a few days later. Even as his wife fell ill and was hospitalized, he never stopped caring for the two Airmen.

Airman Veguilla, who is back on duty and currently preparing for an upcoming deployment, traveled to Ramstein so he could thank the doctor in person.

"Here I am a year later, in uniform, and still in the military," Airman Veguilla said. "For the longest time I've been wanting to do this, I want to salute you. Thank you so much for everything you have done for me and Sergeant Schneider."

Sergeant Schneider, who couldn't attend the ceremony, because he is still undergoing medical treatment in the U.S., sent a video with a message to Dr. Zacharowski from him and his wife Amanda.

"The thing I remember the most about you is the day I was airlifted to Landstuhl, when I was coming out on a gurney, you were standing there with your children and I remember you introducing me to them as superman," Sergeant Schneider said. "I don't even know how to put into words how thankful I am that you were there, that you were my doctor. The care we received from you and your staff was awesome. You made it a lot easier to deal with what we were going through. Hopefully one day I will be able to walk through the hospital with you, see you again and give you a big hug whether you want it or not. Thank you very much for everything you did for me."

His wife, while holding their two children, had this to add.

"You meant the world to us then, and you still do to this day. When we found out we were expecting a baby there was no question for either Kris or I; whether it was going to be a boy or girl, we knew we were going to name our baby after you. So this is Kairee Schneider and she is three months old as of yesterday. Thank you so much and you will always be part of our family."

Other dignitaries in attendance were the Honorable Philip D. Murphy, U.S. ambassador to Germany; Honorable Ned Alford, U.S. consul general to Germany; State Police President Udo Muench, State of Hessen; Lt. Gen Friedrich Wilhelm Ploeger, NATO Air Command deputy commander; Lt. Gen. Stephen Mueller, USAFE vice commander; Chief Master Sgt. David Williamson, USAFE command chief master sergeant; and many others.

"I haven't seen either one since a year ago today, I guess it should go without saying, we are in a heck of a lot better place today than we were the last time we saw each other," Ambassador Murphy said. "When Ned Alford and I walked in there that morning you guys were in tough shape, but Dr. Zacharowski and his colleagues were the epitome of professionalism as I've never seen before. When we walked out of there we were left feeling hopeful. The fact that [Schneider] is there today on the video and you [Veguilla] are here live and in color, what a treat to see you again."

Dr. Zacharowski, who was joined by his wife, Dr. Paula Zacharowski, his two sons Luke and Nicholas and other close family and friends, was visibly moved by ceremony.

"This is a great honor and a wonderful feeling to be with you today," the doctor said. "Being here today and being honored in this way I did not expect. I've learned a lot from you guys. I have learned how you really support each other. All the people who came to the hospital were one big family. I saw lots of tears, but as a group and as a family you were able to go through this really hard time. It was an unbelievable experience for me."

He also added how impressed he was with General Welsh.

"Betty and General Welsh were outstanding," Dr. Zacharowski said. "You were there three or four times looking after them for hours at a time. Always making sure they and their families were being looked after. Unbelievable! I was really impressed."

He ended his remarks saying that while he does not wish for a situation like this to reoccur, if his services were needed he would proudly help again.

"You can count on me 100 percent," he said. "I will do it exactly the same and as hard as I've done it before. Thank you allowing me to live it again in a positive way. So now these are tears of joy."