By Tech. Sgt. Francesca Popp, U.S. Air Forces in Europe Public Affairs
/ Published March 18, 2011
FRANKFURT, Germany -- Hard-soled shoes echoed on the highly polished floor. The smell of antiseptic filled the air. Two German police officers share a hushed conversation outside a hospital room as laughter rolls out to the hallway from the open door.
The laughter is a positive sign from family and friends surrounding Senior Airman Edgar Veguilla and Staff Sgt. Kris Schneider, who are each recovering from multiple gunshot wounds sustained March 2 at the Frankfurt International Airport.
They and 13 other security forces Airmen assigned to the 48th Security Forces Squadron at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom, were transiting through Frankfurt on their way to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, before deploying to Afghanistan, when a gunman boarded their bus and began shooting.
Those shots killed the bus driver, Airman 1st Class Zachary R. Cuddeback, 86th Vehicle Readiness Squadron, Ramstein AB, and Senior Airman Nicholas J. Alden, 48th SFS, and wounded two others before the gun jammed. The gunman fled the bus and was soon apprehended by the German federal police, according to media reports.
Both were excited about going on this deployment, until the events of that day changed everything.
Airman Veguilla and Sergeant Schneider were rushed to the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Hospital in Frankfurt am Main less than an hour after being injured, with the help of their teammates who provided initial buddy care. Once in the trauma center, a team of anesthetists/intensivists led by Dr. Kai Zacharowski as well as other trauma-, neuro-, maxillary- and eye-surgeons took over their care. Several hours later, both patients were admitted to the intensive care unit.
Dr. Zacharowski had planned to speak at a conference and go on vacation when he learned about the Airmen's conditions, but he canceled those plans to ensure Airman Veguilla and Sergeant Schneider received the care they desperately needed and deserved.
"They were in very critical condition, and I felt I had to be around," said Dr. Zacharowski, who is the director of anesthesia, intensive care medicine and pain therapy at the hospital. "Initially, we expected the worst. But we were lucky that within 35 minutes we put our hands on our patients. They were really, really lucky."
The doctor and his team worked to further stabilize the Airmen simultaneously in the trauma center.
"It is quite unique to have two major cases at the same time," he said. "We did both in parallel and are very proud about (being able to help them)."
The recovery progress is not what the doctor expected 10 days after the shooting.
"I haven't expected this at all. I thought, probably, they would be (here) two or three weeks," Dr. Zacharowski said of the Airmen's recovery. "It's a combination of God's grace and God giving us the ability to treat patients who are so severely sick, injured and almost dead basically. I call (them) the miracle of Frankfurt."
It's that miracle that helped ensure the families of these Airmen get to be with them today.
Finding out and getting there
Airman Veguilla's mother, Maria Soto, said she was at work in Texas when she learned an Air Force representative was trying to contact her.
"I received a call from my husband that Major (Joe) Wildman was at the house with him," Mrs. Soto said. Once home, she learned from the 82nd Security Forces Squadron commander at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, that her son was injured and that plans were already being made for her to travel to Germany.
Mrs. Soto was in Germany within 36 hours of being notified. During that time, she was not aware of his medical status.
"I didn't know how critical he was, but knew he was hurt," she said.
At the same time, Sergeant Schneider's wife Amanda was at home in England waiting for her husband to call to let her know he had landed in Germany. That was until she saw the news on the Internet. Within minutes, a security forces team was at her home.
"All my friends and neighbors rallied around me when I learned about what happened," said Mrs. Schneider, who said she and her husband met while he was stationed at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. "All I wanted, at that time, was to learn something about whether or not Kris was safe."
After being told her husband was injured, Mrs. Schneider said it seemed like she "waited forever" to leave the UK and get to Germany. "(Air Force officials) got me to Germany really quickly," she said about getting to his side in less than 10 hours.
From the moment these women learned their loved ones were injured, they said they were never alone. Mrs. Soto and Mrs. Schneider said the Air Force family was looking out for each of them and ensuring they only needed to focus on their Airmen so they could heal.
Upon arrival in Germany, Mrs. Soto said Air Force officials were once again waiting for her.
"I haven't been alone. They've been right there for me," she said. "I was so worried at first, because of everything I've heard (from other sources). Things like, 'When they get hurt, nobody cares for them.' When I got here (to the hospital), I felt like family. (Even the hospital staff) cared how I felt."
Mrs. Schneider echoed those sentiments.
"From the very beginning, I felt very supported," she said. "My (Air Force family) was fabulous with everything and kept me calm. Even with my England family, I wasn't alone for a minute."
It's that kind of support that helped the families of these wounded Airmen, who share this experience. They agree that this support, especially from the hospital staff, kept them going and allowed both Mrs. Soto and Mrs. Schneider to rely on one another.
Mrs. Soto said that Mrs. Schneider looked after her son while she was en route to the hospital. After she arrived at the hospital, Mrs. Soto said they began taking shifts.
"We made sure that each of our boys had someone with them. They were never alone," Mrs. Schneider said. "We've had each other to lean on, get some emotions out and vent to one another. We're family now. I think that's helped everybody through this situation. (We) are 'family for life' because of this shared experience. I don't think I could have gone through this alone."
The support they received from the hospital staff was beyond anything they imagined, they said.
"I have never seen so much care and professionalism," said Mrs. Soto, who works as a phlebologist in a hospital. "It's just amazing. Working in the medical field, I've never seen anything this close. There is a doctor here who lent me his phone because I hadn't talked to my other children in a few days."
Likewise, Mrs. Schneider said that they were excited to see each staff member every day.
"There really aren't any words to describe how much of an impact they've made on this whole process," she said. "They saved my husband's life. They're unbelievable. They're compassionate, have a great work ethic and are friendly. I just couldn't image being treated this way, especially with the medical care they've provided not only to Kris, but to 'V' (Airman Veguilla) as well. They were supportive and went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable, and the boys were safe and had everything they needed."
Dr. Zacharowski had the same thing to say about these families and their extended families.
"Kris and V have absolutely fantastic families. They are friendly, understanding and caring. They are human beings who let out their sadness and tears and also their happiness," he said. "For me, it's been a great experience getting to know the extended family and how very friendly and tactful they were. I have learned something from (the Americans and the U.S. Air Force). It's unbelievable how you stick together and provide each other comfort. They were all very professional, but showed they were human and cared about this situation."
The doctor said there wasn't one single night in the 10-plus days he cared for Airman Veguilla and Sergeant Schneider that he didn't dream about the situation, because he put his heart and soul in to treating his patients.
Road to recovery
Airman Veguilla and Sergeant Schneider are getting stronger every day with the help of the medical staff, their families and each other.
The doctor said he has a "good feeling" that they will have full recoveries.
"It is a miracle for what they went through," he said. "It is very sad that this happened to Americans in my country."
Mrs. Soto said she is helping in her son's recovery by what she said is being tough on him.
"I don't want him to give up," she said while looking at him and holding his hand. "He's been given a third chance at life, because any one of those bullets could have taken him. I will keep encouraging him to make things better even when he wants to give up. With all of this, he is positive even through his frustration."
In addition to the encouragement, Mrs. Soto said she's caring for her son by giving him hand massages and a lot of love.
Airman Veguilla chimes in, "Typical mom."
Mrs. Soto laughs, "I know he likes it and is taking advantage of it."
It's that kind of laughter and positive energy that is also pushing Sergeant Schneider. When he first arrived at the hospital, Mrs. Schneider said, the doctors didn't know what was going to happen or how long it was going to take for him to wake up, but he was breathing on his own and awake within 48 hours.
Mrs. Schneider said her husband has been fighting since the day he arrived at the hospital and keeps fighting. She has been there nearly every second to encourage and talk to him.
"His huge personality is still there. He's been joking and being sarcastic ever since he woke up. He is still able to crack a joke or two, even with all the pain he is in," she said. "I couldn't ask for anything better than that."
The positive energy and healing atmosphere is what Mrs. Schneider said is also contributing to the recovery efforts. "Even when things weren't so well, we found a way to smile," she said
But through it all, the smiles the doctor has seen on the Airmen's faces have been encouraging, especially since he didn't expect to see such happiness throughout the healing process.
"Both were smiling and they both made it happen consciously. That was a great sign for me," Dr. Zacharowski said.
In their own words
As their time at the Frankfurt hospital drew to a close, the Airmen looked forward to getting home and having some "quiet time."
"Honestly, I just want to sit down for a bit in a quiet room," Airman Veguilla said.
The first thing the Schneiders want to do once Kris is well enough to go home is to "be a family again," Mrs. Schneider said. "I just want to sit in our living room with our two kids and watch a movie. I want the simple things."
Both Airmen are already talking about going back to work and being with their team again.
"I'm doing fine," Sergeant Schneider said about what he wanted his co-workers to know while thanking them for their support. "I love them, and I can't wait to see them."
Thanks a million
The families of both Airmen agree that they can't thank everyone enough for the outpouring of support they've received since the shooting.
"I appreciate everything everyone has done - from the Air Force and the hospital staff to the people who have been praying for us and providing moral support," Mrs. Soto said. "There have been so many people that I can't begin to name and thank them all. Without them, I don't think we would have made it this far in such a short time."
Mrs. Schneider agreed and said she wished she could respond to each note she's received.
"To know that we have so many people on our side (who) care about what these guys do means so much to us. I want to thank the first responders, the police, the hospital staff, the doctors and everyone we've met along the way. If they only knew how much I appreciate what they did for our boys.
"They both got second chances at life. I don't think that ever, in a million years, I can thank (people) enough," she said. 'I'll never forget their kindness."
(Editor's note: Tech. Sgt. Jocelyn Rich, 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs, contributed to this story.)