Not long after one of the worst days of Barry Loudermilk’s life, a Navy SEAL gave the Cassville-based congressman a piece of advice.
The best way to cope with traumatic events, the SEAL said, was to revisit them in painstaking detail. He suggested that Loudermilk write down every sight and sensation he could remember starting from the moment he woke up on June 14, the day a 66-year-old Bernie Sanders devotee opened fire on GOP lawmakers and allies practicing for the annual congressional baseball game.
The two-term Republican did just that.
He recounted the coffee he sipped as his top aide drove him to the Alexandria, Va., field early that morning and tying the laces of his cleats in the dugout. He described the shed and Capitol Police SUV he hid between as the bullets from the shooter’s SKS 7.62 mm semi-automatic rifle whizzed past his head, and how his mind jumped to his military training from decades earlier as he plotted a way to get to Matt Mika, the lobbyist who was lying nearby, wounded and bleeding.
The “notebook of unfortunate events,” as Loudermilk calls it in an homage to the Lemony Snicket children’s books, should have ended there. But the siege at the baseball diamond was just the first of four traumatic events in less than a year that he says have amplified his approach to politics and civility in Washington.
One of the most conservative members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, Loudermilk said he had grown conflicted with Capitol Hill’s incendiary style of politics even before the baseball shooting and had quietly started readjusting his tactics. The other nightmare incidents he has experienced since then, he said in recent interviews, have further accelerated that shift.
“To me, I always see the hand of God there,” Loudermilk said. “Who would go through all those things and still be walking around to talk about it?”
Loudermilk is easy to pick out in the ornate corridors surrounding the U.S. House, where he has been a member since 2015. The 54-year-old has the tall, broad frame of a onetime football player. But despite his imposing physical appearance, he’s quick to crack a joke — like whether he can now be classified as snakebitten given the events of the past year.
“It’s to the point now that people are coming up to me and saying, ‘Can you let me know what flight you’re on? Because I don’t want to be on the same flight,’ ” Loudermilk said. “But yet somebody else will come up and say: ‘Are you kidding? I want to be on his flight because even when disaster happens, they get through it.’ ”
But even Loudermilk admits recent events have had a profound impact on him and his family, both on Capitol Hill and at home in Bartow County.
Roughly three months after the baseball shooting came a late-night wreck that flipped and totaled the rental car he was driving with his wife, Desiree, in the passenger seat. Another crash came in January, when the Amtrak train Loudermilk, Desiree and dozens of other lawmakers were riding to the annual Republican retreat hit a garbage truck, killing two.
“All of a sudden there was a loud crash and everyone was thrown forward. My wife and I were thrown into the seats ahead of us,” Loudermilk told the Cox Washington bureau the day of the accident.
A fourth harrowing incident — one the Loudermilks hadn’t previously disclosed publicly — has also wrought its own havoc.
After day-tripping through the North Georgia mountains in September, the couple found a bullet lodged above the bumper of their daughter’s car that they had been driving. The incident attracted the interest of the FBI due to the angle of the shot — Loudermilk said that while agents couldn’t determine whether the shooter knew who was driving the car, the bullet’s positioning shows they were targeting the vehicle. An FBI spokesman confirmed the agency is investigating the incident but declined to comment further.
The events have affected the family in several ways.
It’s harder to relax, especially at night. Desiree only half-jokes that their three adult children gird themselves whenever one of them calls.
“They’re afraid we’re going to tell them that something has happened,” she said.
Loudermilk can’t bring himself to get rid of the pants he wore to that fateful baseball practice — they still hang, bloodstained, in his closet. Same for the shirt he wore the night of the car accident.
There are also more serious effects. The Loudermilks upgraded their home with a high-grade alarm system and cameras, and they updated security protocols at the office after the baseball shooting.
Then there are the flashbacks.
Loudermilk said he relived the scene at the baseball diamond every day for months. He had been standing near home plate that summer morning waiting for his turn at bat when bullets suddenly sprayed in his direction from the fence closest to third base.
“It brought face to face how politics can escalate to violence,” he said. Shooter James Hodgkinson, Loudermilk said, “turned a policy disagreement into true hatred.”
‘Let them process’
Which helps explain why he had such a visceral reaction to last month’s mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school.
Loudermilk was particularly struck by the videos that surfaced on social media depicting students crouched on the floor of their classrooms as gunshots fired off in the background, sights and sounds that “immediately took me back to the ballfield.”
The aftermath of the baseball shooting last summer left Loudermilk furious. The attack was politically motivated — Hodgkinson had asked whether the players practicing were Republicans before opening fire — and Loudermilk was livid at what he saw as Washington’s partisan and inadequate response. Instead of being sensitive to the victims and addressing the political acrimony that prompted Hodgkinson’s rampage, the discussion so quickly returned to the prickly and deadlocked policy debate over gun control.
That shift made Loudermilk feel like a “political pawn,” he said. So he intentionally sat out of the latest firearms debate. He said he didn’t want the Parkland victims to feel the same way.
“I’m frustrated with those that are using some of those children” for political gain, Loudermilk said. “It took me until August until I went an entire day without having a flashback from the (June) shooting. I know what those kids are going to be going through. You have to let them process, you have to let them deal with it. And as long as you’re keeping them in the limelight, they’re not going to deal with the trauma that they experienced.”
Loudermilk insists the events of the past year haven’t changed his views on core issues such as guns. He wants to expand firearms access and security at schools, and he suggested after the baseball shooting that the outcome could have been different had Virginia’s gun laws been more lenient.
But the baseball shooting in particular convinced him that political rhetoric in Washington has gone too far. He said he’s been trying to adopt a more civil approach to politics, especially as he interacts with people and groups who disagree with him.
“It’s better to approach those who think they may disagree with you on a policy (with) reason instead of just an aggressive approach,” he said. “We’ve found out that even with members of the Indivisible movement who come to our office that when we sit and talk they may not agree with me and my principles, but they can’t disagree with my heart.”
Casey Sharp, a coordinator of Georgia’s 11th District chapter of the liberal advocacy group Indivisible, said his most recent in-person meeting with Loudermilk was “civil.” But he also said he felt like many of his inquiries on issues such as refugee resettlement policies and climate change were quickly dismissed.
“Among Georgia Republicans, he’s not one of the most divisive, but I would say the bar is set pretty low,” Sharp said.
Before the baseball shooting, Loudermilk said he had already been moving away from the naked political warfare that’s common in Washington and helped him win his 11st District seat in the first place.
He defeated former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr in 2014 following a bruising and often personal Republican primary to replace Phil Gingrey. Loudermilk accused Barr of essentially abandoning the Republican Party and endorsing Eric Holder for attorney general in 2009. And Barr raised questions about Loudermilk’s military service and attacked him for a settlement the state Legislature reached in a racial discrimination case involving Loudermilk’s former legislative secretary.
When Loudermilk first arrived in Congress, he joined the House Freedom Caucus, a rabble-rousing group of conservatives known for pushing GOP leaders to the right on key legislation and away from compromising with Democrats.
He quietly left that group a few months before the baseball shooting, saying he was short on time and wanted to focus his efforts on the larger and less hard-line Republican Study Committee.
Loudermilk supported a two-year budget agreement last month that bolstered defense spending and other Georgia priorities, a bill that some conservative groups slammed for adding hundreds of billions to the national debt. And he has on occasion worked with moderate Democrats on legislation through his work on the Financial Services Committee.
Still, Loudermilk is no centrist. He’s stuck with his party on key issues such as health care, taxes and law enforcement. And he’s spent the lion’s share of the past year focused on overhauling the rules governing federal employees, a concept that’s raised the ire of union stakeholders.
“Regardless of the differences that we may have politically, (Loudermilk has) always shown me that he’s a kindhearted gentleman,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, one of the most liberal members of Georgia’s congressional delegation. But “our values are different in terms of our approach to governance and our philosophies as to the role of the federal government,” Johnson said. “That’s the clear reality.”
Loudermilk’s resolve to be more civil will be tested later this year as he runs for re-election. He faces Democrat Flynn Broady, a prosecutor in the Cobb County Solicitor General’s Office.
Loudermilk said he plans to keep his re-election message focused on policy, but he added he wouldn’t hesitate to fight back if an opponent attacked his family or engaged in similar personal attacks.
The events of the past seven months did force Loudermilk to evaluate his career path – a process tied at least indirectly to the baseball shooting, and the train and car crashes – to determine whether the Washington job was worth the risk to the safety of him and his family.
A moment of clarity, Loudermilk said, came after he spoke to Desiree on the side of the Tennessee interstate after their car accident. Desiree was convinced she was going to die as their car slung sideways and began rolling.
“The next thing I thought of was my kids. They’re all flashing before my eyes, as they say,” she recounted. “And then the car stopped and I had time to think. That made me realize that’s what’s important.”
Their children and grandchildren are what prompted the couple to get more politically involved after 9/11, and Loudermilk said they are what is keeping him in Washington for now.
Ask the people who have known Loudermilk for a long time about his experiences over the past year and they express disbelief.
“After third or fourth incidents, you would think somebody would start to consider hanging it up,” said Rob Adkerson, Loudermilk’s chief of staff, who has known the congressman for a decade. “But I think it’s only reinforced his determination. Same thing with his wife. They’re more sure than ever that this is where they’re supposed to be.”
Sitting at his desk in Washington, Loudermilk still occasionally takes out his notebook of unfortunate events to reflect on his past year. It’s grown into a binder, its plastic-protected pages filled with notes, photos, news clips and a letter to his children. All of it, he said, points him back to his Christian faith and what he refers to as his “life Scripture,” Proverbs 3:5-6.
“It basically says quit trying to figure out life and just trust that you’re doing what God’s leading you to do,” he said.
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