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As the Jan. 6 attack anniversary nears, one Capitol officer fears a violent repeat

U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testified last July before the U.S. House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Authorities say some 140 police officers were injured during the insurrection. [Pool / Getty Images]
U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testified last July before the U.S. House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Authorities say some 140 police officers were injured during the insurrection.

"This is how I'm going to die."

That's what U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell thought on Jan. 6, 2021 as an angry mob stormed the Capitol and dragged him by the leg.

"I could feel myself losing oxygen and recall thinking to myself, 'This is how I'm going to die, trampled defending this entrance,'" he said last July before a House Select Committee investigating the riot that disrupted a joint session of Congress as it affirmed the results of the presidential election.

On that January day, Gonell was assigned to guard the west entrance to the Capitol, which he's described as a "medieval battleground".

Nearly a year later, the emigrant from the Dominican Republic still can't raise his left arm due to injuries he sustained during the attack, and the psychological wounds have also not healed for him or his family.

"They see me cry. They cry with me. They see me in pain. And they also cry because they can't do anything for me other than try to make me feel a little bit better," Gonell told NPR this week. "This whole year has been horrific."

Gonell returned to work 10 months after the insurrection –- in an administrative position because of his hurt shoulder. He's in therapy for his mental health, and as the one year anniversary of the riot approaches, he says what's on his mind is "anxiety".

"A lot of the officers have in mind the possibility of this being a recurring annual or every four year thing, which is why officers like myself are being outspoken about it, because we don't want to go through this again," Gonell said.

Nevertheless, he says he would, if it's required of him.

"It's mind boggling to hear some of the things that are coming from some of these elected officials. But at the end of the day, our job is to make them safe and make their work environment safer, regardless of our opinion or political affiliation," Gonell said.

While he's considered leaving the Capitol force, Gonell has decided instead to try to move up in the ranks to lieutenant. Still, he says showing up to work every day is difficult. About a week ago, he was doing his rounds when he was arrested by the sounds of a construction crew dismantling metal scaffolding.

"Every time that those metal rods hit the ground, it triggered me," Gonell said. "It brought me back to Jan. 6. That particular sound was something I was hearing when they were breaking the barriers to use as projectiles to hit us."

He said it's also tough to run into the members of Congress who voted not to certify President Biden's election and who continue to cling to the lie that ex-President Trump won.

"We risked our lives to give them enough time to get to safety. And allegedly, some of them were in communication with some of the rioters and with some of the coordinators or in the know of what would happen," Gonell said. "And it makes you question their motives and their loyalty for the country, as we were battling the mob in a brutal battle where I could have lost my life and my dear fellow officers, as well."

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack recently requested information from two sitting lawmakers: Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, both Republicans. Jordan, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary panel and a longtime ally of former President Donald Trump, has been asked to provide information about his communication with the ex-President on Jan. 6, while Perry is being questioned about his role in attempting to install a Trump appointee as attorney general in the days leading up to the riot. The idea was to replace acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who stood by the election results, with Jeffrey Clark, the acting chief of the Department of Justice's civil division, who was sympathetic to the fallacious idea that the election had been stolen.

"Any other time in our history, this would have called for a national unity moment. Instead, we are being polarized and some people believe that what happened wasn't that bad, [that] it was a tour," Gonell said. "Well, they need to come talk to me. I'll show them my injuries. I'll show them who I was fighting with because these people were not pacifists. These people were intent on overthrowing the government."

Prosecutors have brought cases against some 650 rioters for their role in the attack, resulting in dozens of misdemeanor and felony obstruction pleas. Gonell said the penalties for many are not enough.

"Their jail time is less than my recovery time," Gonell said. "The charges they're getting do not compare to the mental and physical injuries some of the police officers, including myself, got."

Gonell said it galls him to hear people downplay the events of Jan. 6, an idea that's progressively gained traction with some Republicans. "They're telling us, oh, it wasn't that bad. It was that bad when they were running for their lives. It was that bad when we were struggling to hold them [the rioters] off so they could have a chance to escape to safety," he said.

While former Vice President Mike Pence has called Jan. 6 a tragic day and thanked law enforcement, including the Capitol Police, for quelling the violence, Gonell was offended by Pence's recent comments to media outlets that Gonell perceived as minimizing the day's importance.

"I'm not going to allow the Democrats or the national media to use one tragic day in January to demean the intentions of 74 million people who stood with us in our cause," Pence told the Christian Broadcasting Network. "And I'm not going to allow the Democrats to use one tragic day in January to distract attention from their failed agenda and the failed policies of the Biden Administration. We're going to focus on the future. We're going to stand on the constitution. And we're going to stand for the liberties and commitment to life that have always made this country great."

"That one day in January almost cost my life," Gonell said.

As rioters stormed the Capitol they called for Pence to be hanged because he did not block the certification of the presidential election.

"And we did everything possible to prevent him [Pence] from being hanged and killed in front of his daughter and his wife. And now he's telling us that that one day in January doesn't mean anything. It's pathetic. It's a disgrace," Gonell said.

"He swore an oath to the country, not to Donald Trump."

Come this Jan. 6, Gonell hasn't decided how he'll commemorate the anniversary. He's put in for leave from work.

"I can fight if I need to, but I think I'd be a liability in terms of not having my issued equipment to defend myself and my fellow officers," he said.

Going forward, Gonell hopes the ongoing prosecutions lead to stiff penalties. "What I don't want is for some of these people to think it's OK, regardless of what the political figures are saying," he said.

"If these people don't get some type of deterrent, it will happen again, and that'll be on us."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.