RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Kurt Beck trained as an electrician before hitching his star to German state politics, where for years he forged a close relationship with the largest U.S. military community overseas.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa, paid homage to Beck on Friday at the Ramstein Officers’ Club, bestowing on him the Medal of Distinction — awarded to non-U.S. citizens for their service, achievements or support in accomplishing the command’s mission.

“He has been a friend to many of us individually, but most importantly, a friend to our Air Force,” Breedlove told the small crowd gathered at the ceremony. “He has supported our military programs time and again.”

Beck, a Social Democrat, served as the minister-president of Rhineland-Pfalz for over 18 years before his retirement in January. Breedlove noted that Beck’s efforts contributed to several major projects, including the return to Germany begining in 1999 of the Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt and the relocation of its airlift capabilities to Ramstein and Spangdahlem.

“It’s that cooperative mentality that led him to assign the state police to protect our installations” after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Breedlove said, noting another area of support.

“We’re indebted to you,” Breedlove told Beck.

Two surprises awaited Beck, 64, as he stood by Breedlove’s side on stage.

First, a note of congratulations was read. “It is thanks to your decisive leadership … that our close partnership with your beautiful state, which I know so well from my own time living there, has flourished,” the letter read in part. It was signed by Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff and Breedlove’s predecessor as USAFE commander.

Breedlove pinned Beck’s medal and the accompanying lapel, and then asked Beck to remove his black suit coat, presenting him with a brown leather flight jacket, complete with a name patch and USAFE patch. Breedlove donned his matching flight jacket.

Beck beamed.

Through a translator, he said he accepted the award on behalf of all the people of Rhineland-Pfalz “who are dedicated to the idea of our friendship, our common values and our cooperation in this country.”

He added that many people in Germany, not just in the Rhineland-Pfalz, “are very much aware that we owe our personal freedom, peace and liberty that we enjoy since 1945, not the least to the presence and the actions of the American servicemembers.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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