9 Minutes of Terror, 12 Months of Recovery: Inside the Republican Baseball Team’s Return
Posted June 10, 2018 4:23 p.m. EDT
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama remembers how the gunman had described him: “63, white hair.”
On a bright morning last June, a man who was distraught over President Donald Trump’s election opened fire on the Republican congressional baseball team here at a public park complex. Four people were shot before Capitol and Alexandria police took him down.
Brooks’ name was one of six listed on a piece of paper that the gunman, James T. Hodgkinson, carried. He was found to have harbored anti-Republican sentiment online, and had asked two congressmen that morning for the party affiliation of the team.
Yet in findings shared with lawmakers over the past year, the FBI suggested that Hodgkinson, 66, came to the field to commit suicide in a firefight with police, but said that the bureau did not have incontrovertible proof that he had come to the scene to specifically target the Republicans. A week after the shooting, the FBI said the gunman had most likely acted “spontaneously,” and it has not said publicly that the attack was politically motivated.
The conclusions complicated an already difficult year, one in which players were negotiating their grief with their responsibilities as public officials.
Seated in a nondescript conference room in the Capitol in November, the team watched a presentation from FBI agents in disbelief. The findings were a significant break from the players’ collective memory of June 14, when they believed they were targets of a political assault.
Resentment had been bubbling for months. Federal investigators had delivered versions of their presentation in two other meetings: one with those wounded that day and one with the lawmakers identified by the gunman.
“There was disappointment and bewilderment, like, you’re really telling us this? We’re not just getting a report. We lived it,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio said of the reaction in one gathering.
The congressmen had a hard time masking their contempt. Wenstrup told the agents how surprised he was that he had never been interviewed. Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama walked out of the room.
The FBI, which has conducted a lengthy investigation into the attack, declined to comment.
The players had spent months absorbing the enormity of what had happened. Now, they had a version of events they believed contradicted their experience of those nine minutes that spring morning.
— ‘Rip the Scab Off’
In late April, the Republicans returned to the field here where they had almost been killed, preparing for their annual charity game against Democrats at Nationals Park, which will be held Thursday.
The shooting could have changed the course of American politics. Instead, the same team reconvened to practice in unusual circumstances, reacclimating to the scene of a mass shooting as the players continued to grapple with trauma.
The decision was fraught. Some wanted to claim power over the gunman, to make the space theirs again. The mayor of Alexandria encouraged them to return.
“You need to come back, and you need to rip the scab off,” said Brian Kelly, a staff member on the team.
In group meetings, several congressmen declared that it was wrong to relive the anguish of that day. Many of the players suffered flashbacks. Now, they would have to stand several times a week in the same spots where they had heard the first cracks, to make the same throws and take the same swings they had taken before they were attacked.
Bullet holes still dot the fencing and storage units, and Little League teams continue to line dugouts pockmarked by them.
There was an alternative: a newer field in Washington, closer and more convenient for practices at daybreak.
Rep. Roger Williams of Texas, the team’s manager, had been determined not to return. His legislative assistant, Zachary Barth, who was shot in the leg, was too.
“The first day was hard. It was hard for me to look where I was hiding,” Williams said, referring to the first-base dugout, which he had dived into shortly after the shooting began. “I had no desire to go back.” Barth drove his boss to the first practices this year: anxious car rides into this peaceful neighborhood just south of the Pentagon.
“I can’t believe we’re going back here,” Barth remembers their saying. “It wasn’t choice No. 1, or 2, or 3.”
The first day back was the wrong kind of anniversary.
Ryan Thompson, Rep. Joe Barton's chief of staff and an organizer of the game, stood next to Matt Mika, a lobbyist who was gravely injured in the attack, along the first-base line, where they had been when the shots rang out. They couldn’t shake how eerie it was.
“The bullet holes that hit the shed right next to me are still there,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia.
The group agreed on something of a compromise: alternate between the two fields, but not on a fixed schedule, so their presence would be difficult to anticipate. Capitol police designed a security system to ring the field.
But after a week in Alexandria, the team moved practice full time to Washington, where the field would be easier to secure. A group of lawmakers led by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky argued that the experiment — the attempt to readapt — was not worth it.
— Politician as Survivor
After the attack, some of the most insistent Second Amendment advocates on Capitol Hill took on the role of shooting survivor.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority whip, was among those shot. After he returned to Congress in September, Scalise redoubled his commitment to gun rights, even as he counseled survivors of other shootings who were newly animated about gun control. One February afternoon, as he welcomed survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, to his office in the Capitol, Scalise found himself in a back-and-forth with a teenage student about state laws that could have stopped the young attacker.
He shifted the discussion from gun control to one about the need for confiding in others, something he did in the hospital when teammates visited and described what the shooting looked like from different angles.
His encounter with a gunman forced him — and his teammates, who would seek each other out on the House floor in the months afterward — to treat the issue as a matter of experience.
“I grew up with the culture,” said Will Batson, a Senate aide who was on the pitching mound when the first shots were fired. “Friends had guns. They’d go hunting before school. Mass shootings, you never think you’re going to have to deal with it.”
But even as the Republicans, many of them gun owners, re-examined their relationship with firearms, the shooting only hardened their beliefs. The House this year has repeatedly rejected proposals for stricter gun control legislation.
In a Senate campaign ad, Brooks used footage of himself from the morning of the shooting to promote his commitment to gun rights, a move that upset Scalise’s staff.
“If we had had guns, we could have ended it there,” Brooks said in an interview. “None of us were in a position where we could defend ourselves.” Some were confident in how the scene would have unfolded had they been armed. Loudermilk, for his part, surmised that Hodgkinson, who was killed in the attack, could have been cut off earlier.
“I had no way of defending myself or my friends,” he said. “I felt completely vulnerable.”
But some on the team didn’t see the question in such a straightforward way.
Brad Barton, the son of the Texas congressman, who coached the team last year, initially believed that there may have been two gunmen. The sounds and ricochets seemed to be coming from all directions.
Being in a mass shooting, Brad Barton said, hinders a person’s ability to process what you see and then respond rationally.
“I don’t know what I would do if I were there again,” he said. “Can you see the gunman? It’s too much to know. Would you run or hide? Until the lead starts flying, you just don’t know.”
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who hid in the first-base dugout as he watched bullets hit the gravel in front of him, said his teammates’ attention to gun rights after the fact was just another sign of deepening tribalism.
“It’s tough to support some shade of gray in the middle, when this issue probably calls for that,” he said. “I’m not one who says, ‘Let’s ban every weapon or force registration on everybody.’ But there are things we can and should do on a common sense basis, and that list is longer after the shooting.” — Distilling Memories
The morning was familiar to those who have been through war. Sounds from the shooting haunt many on the team: sirens, loud cracks, bullets whizzing by the ear. Several players turned to combat veterans for guidance.
Kelly spoke to Navy SEALs about the shock that comes from being inside something akin to a battle scene, with no training. The SEALs taught Kelly to transform his recollection of that day into black and white.
“It doesn’t go away, but it slows itself down,” he said.
In the months afterward, Loudermilk knew his wife could tell when he was mentally revisiting the scene. His facial expression would abruptly change.
“What brought it back was any time of quiet,” he said.
Veterans advised him to write down everything that had happened before and after the shooting, from the moment he woke up until the episode passed. The idea, Loudermilk said, was to make his impressions even more particular, so he could phase out certain details and dampen the intensity of flashbacks.
Writing in a journal helped him re-imagine the shooting, first without sound, then without smell, then without color.
In August, Loudermilk noticed that he had finally gone a full day without thinking about the shooting.
This spring, Batson had a combat veteran accompany him to a shooting range, thinking it might help soften his perception of guns again.
Whenever he watches TV reports of mass shootings now, Batson said, he pictures himself trapped in the scene he sees on-screen. He recalls how helpless — how slow — he felt while dodging fire.
“It brings out a lot of those sensations, a lot of those emotions,” he said. “I can relate to the people who survived. I know how scared you are, how you’re thinking about your family.”
— Loud Noises and Odd Tastes
The first thoughts that occur to a target in a mass shooting often have no rhyme or reason. Crouched in the dugout, Williams, who played professionally, remembers believing he had to survive so he could witness his granddaughter’s birth. Seconds later, he considered how he wanted “Centerfield” by John Fogerty to play at his funeral.
Williams still anticipates grim daydreams when he is alone.
“Every day I’m thinking about it,” he added. “It just happens.”
He skipped Fourth of July fireworks last year to avoid the auditory reminders.
When Loudermilk visited a shooting range months after the attack, he heard gunshots and rushed back into his car.
“Some people think if you have PTS, it’s a sign of weakness,” he said. “But it’s reality.”
Flake talked about the shooting with his children in a way that reminded him of how he had explained the Sept. 11 attacks to them when they were younger. He remembers how spooked he was by gunshot sound effects at a fundraiser at a memorial exhibit days after the shooting.
Brad Barton developed a metallic taste in his mouth that his doctors have attributed to the trauma. He constantly drinks water to try to clear away the flavor. Loud noises at construction sites still make him jump. For Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, who was batting when the shooting started, the sounds live with him in ways he sometimes cannot understand. There is an image frozen in his mind: of a woman walking her dogs, caught in the middle of the gunfire, her eyes fixed on him in an expression he interprets as a plea for help.
At some point after the shooting, he woke up in the middle of the night, sweating profusely.
“I thought to myself, is that the way sleep’s going to be all the time?” Davis said.
Alternate worst-case scenarios still run through his head.
“What if the shooter stood on the first-base side? What if he hadn’t hit the fence with the first shot?” he said, adding: “I don’t think they’ll ever leave me. I don’t think they’ll ever leave any of us.”
— ‘They’re Shooting at Us’
Just after 7 a.m. the day of the shooting, Brad Barton was playing catch with his 11-year-old half-brother when he saw Scalise go down just feet away from him.
“You have this immediate feeling of guilt,” he said. “I can’t help him.”
Life suddenly seemed 30 seconds long. Barton dropped to the ground, in the line of fire, believing he was about to die.
His first instinct was to call his ex-wife, who was with his kids. He wanted to say goodbye to her, to have her wake up their children, to have his voice reach them in real time. The call went to voicemail.
“They’re shooting at us,” Barton says, his voice shaking.
“God, he’s got a lot of ammo.”
“Jeez, that’s a powerful gun.”
Barton often meets people who refuse to believe he was actually there. He will play them the message, 2 1/2 minutes that seem like eternity. It is testimony: long pauses and heavy breathing interrupted by the sound of gunfire aimed at those around him.