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'This Is How I'm Going To Die': Capitol Police Sergeant Recalls Jan. 6 Attack

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, several law enforcement officers shared painful memories about fearing death during the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AQUILINO GONELL: I, too, was being crushed by the rioters. I could feel myself losing oxygen and recall thinking to myself, this is how I'm going to die - defending this entrance.

SHAPIRO: That was Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell. He was guarding the west entrance to the Capitol that day and described being outnumbered by thousands of people with makeshift weapons. Since Tuesday's select committee hearing, he and others who testified have seen an outpouring of public support and also online attacks. Some of the witnesses have reported getting death threats. Sergeant Aquilino Gonell joins us now. Thank you for being here.

GONELL: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: I know that reliving traumatic experiences can be difficult, and Tuesday's hearing was very emotional. How are you doing?

GONELL: Doing OK - a lot better emotionally. But the trauma's still there. I still go to my physical therapist and my mental health therapist as well.

SHAPIRO: Have you spoken to the other officers who testified on Tuesday? I know D.C. Police Officer Daniel Hodges has said he got death threats after his testimony. Have you experienced any of that backlash?

GONELL: As of right now, no, with the exception of some reporter on Fox News, some type of personality that claimed that I was exaggerating my injuries and my emotions for drama purposes. And this is coming from someone who never raised her hand to serve the country, let alone being in a fight or being in a situation where she had to fend for herself because she's criticizing the same people who offer her the protections that now she's criticizing.

SHAPIRO: That was Laura Ingraham on Fox News.

GONELL: I believe that's her name.

SHAPIRO: You've spoken about the PTSD that you experience not only from January 6 but also from your time serving in the Army in the Iraq War. And so tell us why you decided to testify publicly, even knowing the toll that it might take on you personally.

GONELL: To be honest, I did decide to come forward because the day of - when the Congress was voting for the independent bipartisan commission, I saw the Sicknick family. They were pleading for the congressmen and some of the leaders to support the commission. And when I saw that on TV with my legs still elevated because my foot was getting swollen, I just started crying in my bed. And my wife walks in into my room, and she asked me, well, what's wrong? And I just couldn't contain myself, and I pointed to the TV.

SHAPIRO: You're referencing seeing the family of fallen Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick on TV and saying if you had not survived that day, that could have been your family.

GONELL: Correct, correct. And I had multiple moments during that day that I feared for my life. And now they belittle me, my character, belittling the effort that we did. And this is coming from some of the same people who we gave the time to escape when they were running scared. And this is coming from a great majority of the people in the party that continue to say, we are pro-law enforcement. And, you know, they're not.

SHAPIRO: Yesterday Congress passed $2.1 billion in emergency funding for Capitol police and the Pentagon. Do you think that's enough? And is it coming fast enough?

GONELL: Well, I thank the Senate and the Congress for coming together and do this. It will help. It is better than what we had on January 6 and before. I just wish that a lot of the same people who we are trying to protect - they don't make it harder for us to protect them because when they downplay this event, when they don't condemn this incident, they are emboldening some of the people who might be considering doing the same thing.

SHAPIRO: You testified that on January 6, Trump supporters in the mob shouted racist slurs at you and an officer, Harry Dunn, who is Black. And Officer Daniel Hodges, who was white, said he was asked to join the mob as a brother. What does that undercurrent of racism say about how the insurrectionists and maybe others view law enforcement?

GONELL: Well, they feel entitled. They feel entitled how come here. This is my house. This is our house. We build this, even though that place was built by slaves. Even looking through my gas mask, they could tell that I was not white. It bothers me, but looking back, I didn't pay attention to it until afterwards. At the moment, I was just thinking, I need to help my fellow officers and defend the Capitol.

SHAPIRO: You are a U.S. citizen by choice. You immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1992, and you have fought for this country overseas. I wonder, when you became a U.S. citizen and you took the oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic, did you ever think it would be as literal as it was on January 6?

GONELL: When I signed up for the Army, I knew what I was signing up for. When I joined the Capitol, I also knew what I was signing up for. And for people who belittle me and my colleagues for doing the same thing and fulfilling our oath of office, to me, that's selfish. That's a shame. And that's also a disgrace because you're criticizing me, an immigrant who has more devotion to uphold the ideals and the Constitution, more than some of the people who were actually born here in this country. And that's all I had to say.

SHAPIRO: What would justice look like for you at the end of this process? What do you want to see this investigation lead to?

GONELL: To investigate who was involved. Some of the leadership within our government - they also were part of it. And they all need to be held accountable. At the end, they spent over three years investigating Benghazi in another country, in another continent. And this happened here in our very beacon of democracy, in our own House, in the very same place where they work. People were killed that day because they don't have the courage to stand up to somebody's ego. It's confounding to me.

SHAPIRO: Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, thank you for speaking with us and for your service.

GONELL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TIDES' "SUBTLE DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.