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Darmstadt resident Dieter Schüll liked the Christmas decorations he saw at a Santa Barbara housing area residence in Darmstadt, Germany, on Christmas day, so he took a photo. Citing security concerns, military police made Schüll erase the photos from his camera.

Darmstadt resident Dieter Schüll liked the Christmas decorations he saw at a Santa Barbara housing area residence in Darmstadt, Germany, on Christmas day, so he took a photo. Citing security concerns, military police made Schüll erase the photos from his camera. (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

DARMSTADT, Germany — As he tells it, Darmstadt resident and German national Dieter Schüll was strolling by the American housing area Santa Barbara Village in Darmstadt, Germany, on Christmas Day when a blaze of light and color caught his eye.

Adorned with American flags, lit-up reindeer and a bevy of lights, the home had been done up for the holidays.

With no gate or checkpoint to block his way into the complex, which abuts German homes, Schüll continued on the sidewalk, stood in front of the festive house and snapped a few pictures on his digital camera.

That’s when things got a bit odd.

Private security personnel who patrol the housing area came up to Schüll as they saw him take pictures. After American military police and their German counterparts were called, Schüll eventually was forced to delete the photos from his camera.

“We didn’t want to make a big affair out of that,” the 65-year-old retired physicist said. “Therefore, we erased the photos.”

Something as innocent as a man taking photos of Christmas decorations on an American military home is enough to set off the military’s strictly enforced rules regarding photography of installations. In the name of security, U.S. Army Europe officials don’t differentiate between picture subjects.

“You can’t take photos at U.S. military installations,” without prior authorization or military affiliation, said Bob Purtiman, a spokesman for U.S. Army Europe. “It’s no different for military housing.”

Prior clearance has to be obtained by the local garrison, he said.

“If they would have coordinated that, it wouldn’t have been a problem,” Purtiman said. “Just walking up and taking pictures, people are going to ask questions in this day and age. The security guards we had in place were doing their job.”

Santa Barbara Village is an anomaly of sorts when it comes to Army installations in Europe. While it is gated on some sides, pedestrians can walk in and out of the neighborhood freely. Schüll said that, aside from some concrete blocks placed to prevent cars from entering that area, the sidewalk continued without a checkpoint or any guards.

“I said, ‘This is an open area, it’s a public road and we can photograph whatever we want,’ ” Schüll said. “The German police, they told us that it was correct that we took the photos. Nevertheless, the Americans wanted to erase the photos.”

While unable to provide numbers, U.S. Army Garrison spokeswoman Teri Viedt wrote in an e-mail Friday that such incidents have happened before.

“We require our security personnel to stop anyone who is doing anything suspicious on the installation,” she wrote. “In the case of Herr Schüll, he refused to provide requested information, which resulted in the MP and Polizei being notified in order to assist. Again, this is normal procedure.”

Schüll said he did not initially give his information to the private security agents because he believed it to be a matter for the German police.

After giving his name and address to the German authorities, Schüll said he was called uncooperative by the military police when he did not repeat all the information.

“An American officer came with a huge form with a lot of data,” he said. “We said that the German police is responsible for that, and the German police gave this data to the Americans.”

Schüll said he was concerned by the incident.

“We don’t know what the Americans do with that data,” he said, adding that he feared he had been placed on a list that may one day limit his travel to America. “This is kind of a concern.”

Viedt wrote that the information is for record keeping at the garrison, and is not passed on to any outside agency.

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