While some of his colleagues have called him a hero, Rep. Brad Wenstrup sees the circumstances around the June 14 shooting a bit differently
Brad Wenstrup still wonders what made him change his mind that day a year ago. He was carrying his glove to the outfield during baseball practice when he turned around and walked back to the batting cage.
“I don’t even like that batting cage because the machine is wild,” he says. Besides, he had already finished batting practice. “But for some reason, I turned around.”
Suddenly shots were fired at the players on the field. Instead of being exposed in the open in right field, Wenstrup was safe. “I was in the best place I could possibly be in. I could see the shooter. I could see everyone on the field. I could see Steve [Scalise] crawling, trying to get away. I could see the gun battle with the Capitol Police.”
It was a year ago, June 14. A man with a target list in his pocket and poisonous hatred in his mind attempted the bloodiest political massacre in U.S. history.
As the bullets flew, Wenstrup watched as the attacker started shooting on the move and realized he would soon be a target. He ducked behind a block-wall bathroom. Then as police shot the attacker and yelled, “Everyone stay down,” he sprinted to second base to help House Majority Whip Scalise, who was wounded, unable to crawl to safety, numb from shock and trauma.
“I checked him over and found no exit wound. That’s when I realized he was hurt much worse.” Wenstrup used his belt to make a tourniquet.
For Brad Wenstrup, his St. Xavier High School motto, “Men for Others,” is more than words stenciled on a wall. He donated a bone-marrow transplant to his sister, who had leukemia. He joined the Army in 1998. In 2005, in his late 40s, he left his successful podiatry practice to serve a year in Iraq. Under his leadership, the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where inmates had been mistreated by Iraqis and American soldiers, became a humanitarian Army hospital. He was awarded a Bronze Star for heroic action in combat.
Scalise has no doubt that Wenstrup saved his life.
“The first person there was Brad. I could hear the shooting. It was a very active gunfight,” Scalise says. “I didn’t know if I would make it through.
“As soon as Brad came over he asked where the bullet went in. He immediately found the opening, applied pressure and a tourniquet. The doctors said that saved my life. I would not have made it to the hospital without that tourniquet applied perfectly. Brad was a combat surgeon. He had the kind of training, both medical and military, that made the difference when not only minutes, but seconds, counted.
“Within a minute I wouldn’t have made it. When I got to the hospital I had zero blood pressure.”
Ironically, the Republicans were practicing for an annual charity game against Democrats that promotes friendship across party lines.
But on that day, as Rep. Wenstrup ran to save Scalise, he had no thought of politics. He was once again the combat surgeon who had stabilized wounded soldiers in Iraq. His response was almost a reflex, he says. “The combat experience made it completely different. After a year of that [in Iraq], I was not phased.”
Still, he wonders. “At the end of the day it had to be divine intervention.”
If Scalise had not been there, his Capitol Police security detail would not have been on the scene to stop the shooter. Two officers were wounded but returned fire until the would-be assassin was killed. He had fired more than 60 times, wounding five. Miraculously, only the attacker was killed.
“Steve took a bullet for all of us,” Wenstrup says. “If he wasn’t there, we had no security and we all would have been killed.”
The shooter had plenty of ammo and a list of named targets. He was a Bernie Sanders supporter who had been stalking the ballfield for days, parking his van nearby to watch for an opportunity. That morning he had asked a departing ballplayer if the men on the field were “Republicans or Democrats?”
When Wenstrup went back to visit the ballfield later, the groundskeeper told him that for some reason he couldn’t explain, he did something unusual: he locked the third-base gate the evening before—unaware that it would save lives the next day.
An almost point-blank bullet intended for Rep. Trent Kelly was deflected by the locked chain-link fence. “You tell me God was not on that field performing miracles,” Scalise said later.
Unlike most fields, the practice diamond used that day had recessed dugouts where the ballplayers could take cover. Almost any other field would have left them nowhere to hide, and some would have been killed.
One congressman said that day was the first time he heard Wenstrup say he would stay until the end of practice. “If Brad hadn’t been there…” Scalise says. “The incredible life-saving care he gave me is the main reason I’m here.”
So many “ifs.” If the gate had been unlocked. If Wenstrup had left early. If the security police were not there.
“It seems like yesterday,” Wenstrup says. “It really gets you emotionally.”
He remembers the reactions, too. While Scalise was still fighting for his life in critical care, hair-trigger partisans blamed the victims and made excuses for the shooter.
“It seems to me a whole lot more violence and anger is mounting in our country. That saddens me tremendously,” Wenstrup says.
Scalise agrees. “I hope that we can see the harsh rhetoric toned down, especially the inciteful kind that tries to create hatred among people.”
He adds, “A lot of Democrats came to the hospital and led prayer groups for me.”
Wenstrup is living proof that dreams come true. The boy who played army with friends in the backyards of Hyde Park is now a colonel in the Army Reserves. The teen who never missed Medical Center on TV became a combat surgeon and podiatrist. The young man who admired President Ronald Reagan got his start by running for mayor against incumbent Mark Mallory in 2009. He finished closer to an upset than anyone expected.
Now he serves in Congress, and sometimes sounds like Reagan.
Reagan: “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.”
Wenstrup: “Washington politicians think that government can make better decisions than you and me. We know better.”
Scalise says, “What an overachiever. He’s done a little bit of everything. I know he’s a great family man.”
Wenstrup got married in 2012, the year he ran for Congress. His young family lives in Washington during the week and drives home to Cincinnati on weekends.
He is logging miles this summer running for a fourth term in Congress, in a heavily Republican Second District that starts on the east side of Cincinnati and meanders east up the Ohio River to Portsmouth and north to Chillicothe.
Before his first term, he pledged that he would not let Washington change him. “I’m still the same guy with the same friends,” he says.
Six years in Congress is more than a cup of coffee, but he’s not the man most think of when they say “career politician.”
He serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which has investigated political corruption at the FBI and Department of Justice. He says the extent of wrongdoing uncovered at the highest levels has been one of his biggest surprises in Washington.
And he regularly sees classified information that reminds him, “There are people who want us dead, no matter how nice we are to them. After serving in Iraq, I found out things are not the way we were taught all our lives. You have to understand the threats out there.”
As he discovered a year ago, threats out there can come without warning, even in Washington on a sunny baseball field.
Scalise didn’t know Wenstrup very well before the shooting. “There were a lot of things that came together that day. There were things you can’t explain. There were miracles.”
But now, he says, “He and I have become incredibly close. He’s a wonderful person. He’s my hero.”