By Phil Stewart
NAVAL AIR STATION PENSACOLA, Fla. (Reuters) - With an FBI investigation underway, Navy security officer David Link still is not allowed to talk about what he saw when a Saudi gunman killed three U.S. sailors at this sprawling Florida naval base last month.
But Link, one of the first responders at the scene, makes clear he appreciates just how badly things could have gone for him on Dec. 6 at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
"When I got home, it was kind of immediate relief. I got to see my wife and daughter, to know that I got out of that situation -- and with my life," said Link, a master-at-arms 3rd class.
Link and other base personnel met U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday during a visit that highlighted the Pentagon's efforts to restore a sense of security at U.S. military bases across the country. The facilities host about 5,000 military students from 150 countries, including more than 800 from Saudi Arabia.
It is an uphill battle in Pensacola. Three U.S. sailors were killed in cold blood and eight other people were wounded before the gunman, Saudi Air Force Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was himself shot dead.
Families at the base were already on edge after the shooting. Then, earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared it an act of terrorism and announced 21 Saudi cadets training in the United States were being sent home after an investigation turned up child pornography or social media accounts containing Islamic extremist or anti-American content.
Twelve of them had been training at the Pensacola base.
Navy Captain Tim Kinsella, commanding officer of the naval air station, acknowledged apprehension among families who live on the base and said his team has held around 25 town halls in the past six weeks to address their concerns.
"There's a natural apprehension. There's always the questions: what are we doing to make the base safer," Kinsella said.
Still, Kinsella played down calls for the Saudis to be sent home, including an online petition to move all training of students from countries outside NATO overseas, calling them "outliers."
Esper told reporters travelling with him there was no "active" consideration of sending Saudis back home to carry out their training. He noted recent Pentagon changes aimed at improving the vetting of foreign military students.
Asked about how he was addressing tensions between military families and the 140 Saudi students remaining at the Pensacola base, Esper said it was something local base leaders were "working aggressively on."
"We talked about maybe increasing roving patrols, stationary patrols," he said.
The Dec. 6 attack further complicated U.S.-Saudi relations at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival. It also cast the international military exchange programs the U.S. military believes help forge long-term partnerships in a negative light.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, praised those relationships and Esper's efforts to strengthen security.
"At the same, though, we cannot be bringing people over here who want to do things like this with our country," DeSantis said, standing next to Esper.
Kinsella said he believed that the broader Pensacola community still supported the presence of international military trainees.
He recounted how one Pensacola resident gave an apple pie to a group of Saudi military officers, apprehensive of what the community thought of them after the shooting by a fellow Saudi.
"People here recognize that they (the foreign students) are victims of this as well," Kinsella said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewar; Editing by Tom Brown)