Congressman who was in the crosshairs of ballpark shooter vows to protect sanctity of life, upend culture of death
By Bill Brewer
Congressmen Chuck Fleischmann and Steve Scalise thought there was no safer place in the country than a neighborhood ballfield where friends, colleagues, and even political foes could get together in fellowship for a fun game of baseball.
Sadly, a gunman’s anger with the federal government and bullets from his high-powered rifle shattered that ideal.
But Rep. Fleischmann is determined to not let the bad guys win.
He’s hopeful Neyland Stadium can restore some of what was lost June 14 at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
On that day two months ago, a lone gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers practicing for an annual Republicans-vs.-Democrats charity baseball game, seriously injuring several people, including Rep. Scalise, a Louisiana
State University graduate whose district is in Louisiana.
To mark the recovery of Rep. Scalise and put the shooting behind them, Rep. Fleischmann, a University of Tennessee law school grad, wants to invite Rep. Scalise to Neyland when the Vols host LSU on Nov. 18.
The way Rep. Fleischmann figures it, no matter the outcome, the good guys will prevail.
The three-term Republican congressman from Ooltewah who is a volunteer player on the congressional Republican baseball team isn’t speaking in generalities about bad guys and winning … and his resolve goes beyond the baseball diamond.
The lawyer who represents Tennessee’s third congressional district was on the practice field at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park when shots from a gun rang out.
Rep. Fleischmann, a parishioner at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, saw a lone gunman aiming directly at him and others on the field, so he dove for cover in a dugout on the field.
His Republican colleague and fellow Catholic in Congress, Rep. Scalise, was shot in the hip by the gunman. Also shot were Crystal Griner, a Capitol Police officer assigned to protect Rep. Scalise, who serves as majority whip in the House of Representatives, Zack Barth, a congressional aide, and Matt Mika, a Tyson Foods lobbyist.
A 10-minute shootout erupted between the shooter, identified as James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill., and officers from the Capitol and Alexandria Police. Officers shot Mr. Hodgkinson, who was armed with an SKS rifle and a 9mm handgun and had fired more than 60 rounds. He died from his wounds later that day. Rep. Scalise and Mr. Mika were taken to nearby hospitals, where they underwent emergency surgeries.
Rep. Fleischmann said he was injured in the incident diving for cover from the shooting, but his injuries weren’t serious. He was in the dugout with several others, including children who had come to the field to observe, and watched in horror as the shooter took a different position and began aiming directly at them. They realized they were fully exposed. Police officers then rushed toward the shooter, averting what some said would have been a massacre.
Those shot by Mr. Hodgkinson in the melee are recovering. Rep. Scalise suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound that fractured bones, damaged internal organs, caused severe bleeding, and required several surgeries. He was released from MedStar Washington Hospital Center July 25. Mr. Mika was shot multiple times in the chest and arm. Officer Griner was shot in the ankle, and Mr. Barth was shot in the calf.
Rep. Fleischmann estimated 50 to 60 people were at the practice, including House members, senators, their staffs, lobbyists, and others. Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was among those practicing. They had gathered at the ballpark to practice for the next day’s Congressional Baseball Game for Charity at Nationals Park. The game is an annual bipartisan event first held in 1909. Rep. Scalise was playing second base, and Rep. Fleischmann played right field.
Two months after the shooting, Rep. Fleischmann has shifted his thoughts from initial stunned surprise and bewilderment to reflection and resolve. Still wearing his University of Tennessee ball cap and congressional baseball team jersey immediately following the shooting, the congressman said practice participants were like “sitting ducks” on the field and in the dugout. He told one media outlet, “It is so sad when you can’t be safe at a baseball field in America. Something is wrong. This is clearly a deranged individual.”
“The overwhelming thought I have is one of thankfulness. I thank God it wasn’t worse. He kept firing, loading, and reloading,” Rep. Fleischmann said in late July, just after the police officers and first responders were recognized by President Donald Trump with Public Safety Officer Medals of Valor on July 27 for their heroics.
The Tennessee congressman attended the White House ceremony to show gratitude for the officers’ bravery. Recalling how he was in the shooter’s crosshairs at least twice, he is thankful and appreciative of the officers’ life-saving actions.
“I was very honored to attend the ceremony and watch the officers and first responders receive their medals for bravery from President Trump. Being at the White House with them was like a reunion,” he said. “I’m very thankful that I was only slightly injured and recovered in a couple of days.
Congressman Scalise and Mr. Mika are on the mend, as are the others who were injured.”
Many thoughts cross the congressman’s mind about the incident as facts emerge to give investigators and victims a clearer picture of what happened. The shooter apparently was known to police in his home county and also was known as someone who owned and used firearms. In addition, he apparently had grievances against the federal government, which is why he was in Washington.
Sadly, this isn’t the congressman’s first close encounter with domestic terrorism. On July 16, 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, killing four Marines and a Navy sailor and injuring a Marine recruiter and a police officer. The FBI determined the motive for the shooting was terrorism inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.
That terrorist shooting hit home for Rep. Fleischmann and was something he hoped he would never encounter again. He never thought he would be a target in another terrorist attack.
“What safer place is there than a baseball field? That’s the shame of it. As a country, we need to focus on the sacredness of human life and to condemn and deter those who would take human life,” he said. “Life is sacred from inception. That is close to me. Our culture sadly has grown much more violent. We have seen incident after incident where there is a total disregard for life. We must have a renewed focus against violence and for the sacredness of all life.”
Despite the culture of death both shooters were bent on advancing, hope, fellowship, and a spirit of life emerged from the June 14 and July 2015 attacks, according to Rep. Fleischmann.
Within hours of the shooting, congressional leaders from both parties decided to proceed with the charity baseball game on June 15 at the stadium where the Washington Nationals play. It’s a decision that Rep. Fleischmann fully supported.
“It was a tremendous decision to make, to go ahead and play the game. Unfortunately the Democrats won the trophy this year. But what they did was take the trophy and place it in Congressman Scalise’s office for when he returns. The Democrats could not have been more supportive,” he said. “It’s really a wonderful national event, and the fact we went through with it, this is very meaningful to me.”
He noted that within a few hours, the worst of society was overshadowed by what is right with the country: people with opposing views working together for a common goal, and all within the confines of the national pastime.
He said prayers have been appreciated and will continue to be needed, both for the individuals involved in the incident and for the country.
He also said Bishop Richard F. Stika reached out to him shortly after the shooting to offer prayers and support.
“I want to thank the people of East Tennessee for their thoughts and prayers. We still need prayers. We’re going through a healing process,” he said. “Again, I’m very thankful. I pray we’ll all be able to go out next year and play again at Nationals Park – and not let the bad guys win.”