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STUTTGART, Germany — Why a distinctive, blue American-style bus?

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s shooting at Frankfurt International Airport that left two U.S. airmen dead and two others badly wounded, a sense of grief, confusion and anger rippled across the U.S. military community in Europe. And many were left groping for an answer that military leaders in Europe declined to provide: Why, at a time of heightened concern over terrorists who increasingly take aim at soft targets, were American airmen picked up at the airport in a conspicuous American school bus?

“I can’t believe they would send the guys out like that, on a marked bus, make them stick out like a sore thumb, make them targets,” said Kenneth Schneider, the father of one of the wounded airmen, Air Force Staff Sgt. Kristoffer Schneider, 25. “If they’re going to do that, at least let them be armed. Give them a fighting chance.”

Audibly choking back tears in a phone interview from his home in Irwin, Pa., the elder Schneider added: “I guess I should be glad my son is alive, and I am, but that was just stupid.”

Kristoffer Schneider was shot twice--once in the head above his right eye and once in the lower back, his father said. The airman, a military policeman and leader of the group of Lakenheath-based airmen who were en route to Afghanistan, was on a ventilator Thursday, but the elder Schneider said that his son is expected to recover and is “already fighting the machines” to breathe on his own.

Military officials in Europe declined to answer questions Thursday about the adequacy of force-protection measures or the routine use of American-style school buses to transport U.S. military personnel transiting through the Frankfurt airport.

“That’s a part of the investigation,” Lt. Gen. Stephen P. Mueller, Vice Commander for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said at a press conference at the Officers’ Club on Ramstein Air Base, Germany. “Those kind of details, we won’t have answers to until we investigate.”

Other questions roiled the community, such as why the driver of the bus, an American airman, was wearing a uniform--something U.S. service personnel are generally advised not to do when off base overseas.

The bus was transporting a 15-member security forces team asigned to RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom from the airport to Ramstein. They were on their way to support operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan when they were attacked by a gunman, identified by German police as Arid Uka, a 21-year-old ethnic Albanian from Kosovo.

The Defense Department has released the name of one of the airmen who was killed. Senior Airman Nicholas J. Alden, 25, of Williamston, S.C., was assigned to the 48th Security Forces Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England.

The two injured airmen were being treated at a German hospital in Frankfurt, officials said. One was in critical condition and the other was in serious condition.

At U.S. European Command headquarters, officials said they remain concerned about the safety of personnel stationed in or transiting through Europe.

“Thousands of military personnel and their families transit through airports around the world, every day, demonstrating the freedoms we love and defend,” said EUCOM spokeswoman Maj. Lauralee Flannery in a statement. “This tragic incident could have occurred virtually anywhere, and EUCOM will continue to promote personal safety and awareness throughout the command.”

As the investigation continues, Flannery said, “there will be additional opportunities to evaluate the circumstances and recommend additional safety precautions, as needed, balancing our mission and lifestyles.”

American military personnel routinely travel on civilian airlines in and through Europe. The military has only a limited number of transport planes on which servicemembers can be flown from base to base, and moving small numbers of troops on military aircraft or contracted flights is not economically feasible, officials say.

Frankfurt airport handles some 50 million passengers a year, and is a major hub for U.S. personnel stationed in Europe and the Middle East. More than 40,000 troops and their families come through the airport’s USO every year, according to USO official Fred Jeter.

Jeter said he noticed a “marked increase” in security near the organization’s facility at the airport on Thursday.

“You see police today more than normal,” Jeter said.

In Europe, public service announcements from commanders to their troops about security precautions are commonplace, warning servicemembers not to draw attention to themselves or make themselves easy targets. At bases across Europe, troops are required to complete training that instructs them on ways to blend in.

While many heed that advice, Americans still stand out in a crowd, with their close-cropped hair and American clothing.

And the practice of transporting U.S. troops in American school buses and other vehicles marked with U.S government plates is common across Europe.

An Army civilian at the Frankfurt airport, who would not give his name because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said he was angered by the process of getting American servicemembers through there.

“Why are these soldiers and their families being put through this, and the risks at the airport?” he asked. “That’s the gist of what I plan on writing to my congressman. On busy days, we have 40 soldiers in line waiting to board the bus. You do the math.”

Robert Oatman, a naval veteran and founder of the executive protection firm R. L. Oatman & Associates in Towson, Md., said military officials have no choice but to quickly adjust their security policies and practices in the wake of the shooting.

“Where are the lessons learned?” he asked. “Are we telegraphing to the radicalized world that our soldiers are easy targets? This isn’t the first bus that’s picked up soldiers there.”

The shooter, Oatman added, “knew the times. He made a plan. If we don’t learn from this, if we don’t make changes, it’s destined to repeat itself.”

As the flags flew at half staff Thursday over a cold, gray RAF Lakenheath, community members said they didn’t understand why the military used such conspicuous buses to ferry troops out of Frankfurt airport.

“It irritated me,” Sara Hall, whose husband is stationed at Lakenheath, said Thursday morning at the base cafe. Troops and families overseas are constantly told to blend in and not advertise that they’re American, she said, and the military system should do the same. “If they’re going to stress it to everyone else, they should follow it.”

Hall and a friend, Diana Overton, whose husband is also stationed at Lakenheath, said the military needs to reconsider the use of American vehicles in these situations.

“It’s sad and scary,” said Overton, whose husband has been stationed in Europe for eight years.

One airman from the 48th Security Forces Squadron, the victims’ unit, said violence is everywhere. But being overseas has particular risks.

“It’s different here because you stand out,” said the airman, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. “Everybody knows we’re Americans because of our buses.”

The airman said he has been on the bus from Frankfurt to Ramstein Air Base before, and he had never considered the risks before now.

“You go there, Ramstein picks you up and that’s it,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

At the Pentagon, spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said USAFE is reviewing security procedures now, but there was no known heightened threat warning in Germany before the shooting that would have alerted local commanders to change their security measures.

Additionally, the Pentagon has not issued a military-wide directive to review or increase force protection measures, which Lapan said was up to local commanders.

“There’s nothing DOD worldwide that’s in effect,” he said.

Senior Airman Paul McBride, at Frankfurt airport Thursday en route to his new duty station at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, summed up the concerns of many.

“They tell us to blend in with our enviroment,” he said, “but then you find out there’s a blue bus with U.S. plates on it.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Geoff Ziezulewicz, Seth Robbins, Mark Patton, Sandra Jontz, Leo Shane and Kevin Baron contributed to this report.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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