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Capitol Police officer still hurts after Jan. 6

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell guarded the west entrance to the U.S. Capitol on January 6, this thought was going through his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AQUILINO GONELL: This is how I'm going to die - defending this entrance.

KELLY: That's Gonell testifying back in July before the House select committee investigating January 6. After the riot, he had to go on medical leave for 10 months. He was injured on January 6. It's still difficult for him to raise his left arm. But Sergeant Gonell has now returned to serve at the Capitol in an administrative role - desk job. As we approach the anniversary of the insurrection, we wanted to check in with him and listen - really listen - to what's on his mind.

Sergeant Gonell, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I am glad to speak with you.

GONELL: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: I listened to that congressional testimony that you gave. And there was actually something else you said that will stay with me, which is that you were more scared on January 6 than when you were driving down IED-infested roads in Iraq. You served in the Army in Iraq. That's right?

GONELL: Yes, ma'am.

KELLY: I was trying to think of how a person would recover from that kind of terror. What are you doing to take care of yourself?

GONELL: A lot of mental health therapies and spending time with my loved ones.

KELLY: How are they doing - your family?

GONELL: 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. So it's been hard on them as well. This whole year has been horrific, but we're making it and striving to make - to be better.

KELLY: So what's it like as we approach the anniversary? What's on your mind?

GONELL: Anxiety. I don't know what to expect. I hope that a lot of things changed over the past year. I mean, I came back - I returned to work on November 3, almost 10 months later.

KELLY: What about just what it feels like to walk through the rotunda now? I wonder, does it hit you? Or does it get to a point where it feels routine, where you have to make it feel routine again?

GONELL: Well, I'll tell you this. I mean, I wasn't at the rotunda on January 6, but I was at the lower west terrace entrance. And the other day, about a week ago, I was doing my rounds, checking on some of the officers. And when I was doing that, there was a construction on the West Front with the scaffolding. And for a moment those metal pipes they were using - or rods - they were hitting the ground, the cement. And for a moment, I paused. And every single time that those rods hit the ground, it triggered me.

KELLY: The crashing sound.

GONELL: Yes, the metal hitting the concrete. And I paused for about 10 seconds. Take a few steps, and then hit again. I'll look around. I'm like, OK, that's just the construction crew putting things together. But it brought me back to January 6 because of the sound. That particular sound was something that I was hearing when they were breaking the barriers to use those as projectiles to hit us and throw at us.

KELLY: Are you scheduled to work this coming January 6?

GONELL: I was. I took the whole week off. But I - because I don't know what I'm going to be doing, whether I want to be in the area or not. It's a mix of emotions. Do I want to be there? Yes. Would I be fully functional that day? I don't know. It's the mental stress, the anxiety, the physical injuries. I actually have a lot of limitations in terms of doing my job.

KELLY: Have you thought about just walking away and not turning around, about a different line of work?

GONELL: To be honest, yes, I have. But, you know, I still have a lot of things that needs - I need to fix, and I need to recover that if I were to walk away, it's going to take me a different procedure or a different route. I contemplated a lot of things, but I'm still remaining, continuing the course, as if nothing happened and trying to recover to continue my career and serve the public and the Congress.

KELLY: I want to underscore - I know you speak for yourself, not for the Capitol Police. But I'm curious - you know, it's your job to protect the lawmakers who work at the Capitol, all of them, including the ones who are still clinging to the big lie that President Trump won the election, including the ones who voted not to certify the election results. You've got to show up to work every day. They're showing up to work every day. What is that like?

GONELL: To be honest, very difficult because 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 or some of the coordinators or in the know of what would've happened. And it makes you question their motive 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 fellow officers as well. And some of the officers did pay the ultimate sacrifice, like Officer Sicknick that died as result of his injuries. It pains me that some of these people - lawmakers, elected officials that should know better - they continue to downplay the sacrifices that we did. We put our bodies on the line. We bled. We sweat. We got maimed. If January 6 wasn't - didn't happen, Officer Sicknick would've been alive.

KELLY: You're talking about Brian Sicknick, the officer who died the day after. Yeah.

GONELL: Yes, ma'am. I mean, if January 6 wouldn't - hadn't happened, he would be with us.

KELLY: It's true, though, that the further we get from January 6, the more we hear some saying, you know, it wasn't that bad. What do you want people to remember from that day?

GONELL: If it wasn't that bad, I wouldn't be working already. And even with my injuries, I continued to work for 15 days after January 6. And almost a year later, I'm still recovering from those injuries. So it might not have been that bad for some of the people. It may not have been that bad for some of the rioters. But it was bad for me and the group or officers who were battling in the tunnel on the relentless assault on that entrance. And there are other officers who have not come forward with more horrendous stories than I have.

To be honest, I - there are things that officers, they'd rather keep it to themselves because some of the attacks that some of these people unleashed on, also myself, you know, it's - any other time in our history, this would have had call for a national unity moment. Instead, we are being polarized. And some people believe that, you know, what happened - it wasn't that bad; it was a tour. Well, they need to come talk to me. I'll show them my injuries. I'll show them the pictures. I'll show them the video where I was and who I was fighting with because these people were not pacifists. These people were not peaceful.

KELLY: Are you still proud to work there?

GONELL: I am. I take my job very seriously. When I was in Iraq, when I looked at my soldiers, I only saw and care about what's on their shoulder, the American flag, and whether they had my back. And I believe, and I hope, that all the officers in the Capitol also have my back, and they also support some of the things that we did to defend the Capitol because when I was in Iraq, I didn't care whether they voted for Bush or Kerry back then. I cared that we're American. I cared that they had a sense of duty, that we had to do everything we could - and have to - in order to survive and come back home.

And on January 6 when I saw the Metropolitan Police, the only thing that I cared was that they were a police officer and that they had my back. And I did everything I could to help them and be successful. And we did to an extent. None of these political elected officials got hurt. None of their staff got hurt. And they all made it to safety that day, regardless of the threat that we faced that day. Yes, we paid. We put our bodies on the line. We got hurt. We got maimed. We got bloody. We successfully protected them, and they were able to come back that day. And now they're telling us that, 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 off, so they could have a chance to escape to safety.

The former vice president said that people in the media want to focus on one - that one day - and I quote - "that one day in January." Well, that one day in January almost cost my life.

KELLY: We have been speaking with Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell. Sergeant Gonell, thank you very much.

GONELL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.