Staff Sgt. Trevor Brewer joined the Air Force at age 17, in 2006, when the Iraq War was at its worst. Call him an idealist.
“I really wanted to serve my country,” Brewer said. “I joined to do a job that other people won’t do. I saw it as providing service to the nation … so that families can sleep in their beds at night.”
Five years later, the Air Force security officer from Tennessee was looking forward to his first deployment — six months in Afghanistan, at Kandahar Air Field, well inside the wire.
But before he could get there, in one of the safest countries on Earth, the danger and death came to him.
On March 2, 2011, Brewer arrived at Frankfurt Airport in Germany, along with fellow Air Force police officers with the 48th Security Forces Squadron deploying from Lakenheath Air Base in England.
Spirits were high as the airmen boarded the bus to take them to Ramstein Air Base where they would spend the night before continuing their journey.
Then Arid Uka, a skinny, self-radicalized, 21-year-old Islamist who worked at the airport and had decided to kill as many American troops as possible, stepped aboard. The bus turned into what a German official called a “tunnel of death.”
“The first question I asked myself was why wasn’t it me?”
- Staff Sgt. Trevor Brewer
“Allahu Akbar,” Brewer heard Uka say as he shot the bus driver, Airman 1st Class Zachary Cuddeback, in the head, killing him.
Uka shot again, unleashing chaos on the bus full of airmen, their body armor and weapons packed away out of reach. There were screams of pain. Court testimony revealed confusion, as airmen dove for the bus floor, about where the shots were coming from, who was shooting, and what to do.
Brewer had seen Uka shoot Cuddeback.
“I knew it was someone who didn’t like Americans and wanted to kill us,” he said.
And Brewer had a plan.
“I thought, I’ve got to wait and see if the gun jams or if he runs out of ammo until I can make my move,” Brewer said in a telephone interview from Lakenheath.
He crouched behind cover, keeping an eye on Uka as the gunman advanced down the bus aisle.
“There were two or three more shots and then I saw that his feet were right in front of me,” Brewer said.
Uka was pointing his pistol at the airman in the seat in front of Brewer’s. But then Uka saw Brewer looking at him, and he pointed the pistol at Brewer’s face.
“I thought I was going to die. I thought that was it,” Brewer said.
Images of his family and friends passed through his mind. But then he heard a click.
“It took me a second to realize what had happened,” Brewer said. “I was kind of in disbelief.”
Uka pulled the trigger again. Click.
“I thought, ‘OK, I got him. His gun’s jammed,’ ” Brewer said.
Uka turned and ran off the bus and into the airport. Brewer slipped on the blood running through the bus aisle, but was right behind the gunman.
Mortal fear still gripped him, Brewer said, but he knew what he had to do.
“I honestly think that’s what makes a good police officer: one who is fearful but is courageous enough to pursue,” he said. “I knew I had to get the suspect. I had to apprehend him if I could.”
Brewer caught up with Uka, now holding a knife, on the second floor near an elevator.
“He was stopped,” Brewer said. “Almost like he was waiting for me.”
Airport police arrived then, with guns drawn, and made a semi-circle around Uka. He laid down on his stomach and it was over.
Uka had killed two airmen, Cuddeback and Senior Airman Nicholas Alden, and wounded two more, Staff Sgt. Kristoffer Schneider and Senior Airman Edgar Veguilla.
“The first question I asked myself was why wasn’t it me?” Brewer said. “Why was it people I’m responsible for?”
In January, Brewer was presented with Germany’s highest civilian honor, the Federal Order of Merit, in a ceremony in Berlin.
“I deeply admire you, Sergeant Brewer, for your courage,” Hans-Peter Friedrich, Germany’s interior minister told him. “I can only say your behavior is exemplary for all of us.”
In February, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz presented Brewer with the Airman’s Medal, awarded for noncombat heroic actions, at the voluntary risk of life. It is higher than the Bronze Star.
His parents, whom Brewer had persuaded to sign enlistment papers for him when he was 17, wept on the phone when he told them about the airport shootings. They weren’t exactly surprised by his actions, however.
“My dad said, ‘You’re just that kind of person,’ ” Brewer said.
Brewer re-enlisted in August. He’s considering going to college, getting a degree and being commissioned as a second lieutenant.
“I think he’s got a very, very bright future, no matter what he decides,” said Lt. Col. Paul Cairney, 48th SFS commander.
Brewer, he said, had been “incredibly level-headed throughout this whole thing.”
Uka was sentenced in February to life in prison, Germany’s harshest sentence, with a special finding making him ineligible for parole until he’s served more than 15 years in prison.
Brewer said he’s come to terms with what happened. He’s more serious now, he said, and feels a close bond with the other airmen on the bus that day.
“I don’t feel guilt anymore,” he said. “I think I exhausted all the efforts available to me.
“Do I view myself as a hero? Absolutely not,” Brewer said. “I just did what needed to be done. I stepped up. I did my duty.”