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Sergeant Aquilino Gonell was one of the police officers who defended the capitol against insurrectionists on January 6th, 2021. The injuries he sustained that day ended his career in law enforcement, and his new book, American Shield, tells the story of the attack.
In this interview, Aquilino recounts what he saw on January 6th, and explains how he and his fellow officers were betrayed by many of the Republican legislators they fought to defend.
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I couldn't do my job knowing that I need to worry not only about the threat in front of me, but now I had to look over my shoulder behind me, those elected official who downplay what happens. If there was another January six, would they have my back? Would they try to help me close the building, or would they try to restrain me to prevent me from securing the Capitol?
I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. My guest today is Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, an army vet who defended the Capitol during the January 6th insurrection. The injuries he sustained that day ended his career in law enforcement, and his new book, American Shield, tells the story of the attack.
Aquilino, thank you so much for joining us.
And thanks for hosting me, Ken. Good to see you.
Good to see you too. What struck me most in your book about your account at that day when the Capitol was overrun, was how quickly you entered the fight. It felt like one moment you're at your desk, and the next you're strapping on gear and rushing towards the mob.
Can you share with us what it felt like in that moment when you realized that you were headed into battle?
It was a lot of anxiety. A lot of things was going through my mind. We didn't know exactly what was happening outside. Just yesterday I was listening to some of the radio communication that was happening around that day, and it put me back exactly at that moment where I felt, and you could feel in the communication, the crescendo urgency of the moment when officer scream, “Send everything you got, send all the officer available,” thing among those lines, “We getting attack.”
So, those are things that remind me of that moment, and that's exactly what I urge my fellow police officer and my team to hurry up and redeploy ourselves to a position to help my colleagues that they were being attacked on the West front.
Unfortunately, we didn't know the extent of the plan to attack the Capitol on multiple fronts. And we thought that the fighting was going to be concentrated just on the West front, but I guess we were wrong, given the thousands and thousands of people who decided to take part into the insurrection and in the fight.
You're a combat vet, but this was a different kind of fight, you described it as medieval. In fact, President Biden picked up on that phrase himself. Can you describe the nature of that kind of hand-to-hand combat in a tight area?
Thanks for that question. And the reason why I say it was worse than Iraq, even though in Iraq, I survived explosions and shooting as well. It is not because I'm alive in that, in Iraq and not here. The reason I'm saying is worse or was worse, it's because there were things that were happening simultaneously back-to-back, to back-to-back.
So, I survived one, what I perceive at that time on January 6th, a life-threatening situation to get into another one a couple of minutes later. Like for example, we lost the police line and everybody else is encroaching on our space.
We lose the police line. We are being overwhelmed, overrun. We are tired, we are exhausted. And not only are we feeling like we are losing our fight, even though we have guns, we don't want to antagonize the crowd because there are a thousand of them, and none of them have gone through security.
Then people are assaulting you with anything they get their hands on it, pepper spray, bear spray, breaking down some metal barriers and using those bear rods to hit you or throw it and lance at you, or use it as a spear. Using the American flag still attached to a flagpole and using those as bio net and injuring you with those things.
And not only were we getting trampled, but we also getting crushed in the tunnel. I survived a bit getting dragged like they did to Michael Fanone, then getting crushed right next to Hodges in between the mob and the police officer behind me.
So, I'm literally in the middle of it in their picture of me just raising my hand, trying to help somebody. But at the same time, I guess I'm calling for help for myself as well. And those are only the first few, two hours in moments of those four and a half plus that I spent there on the West front. So, it's hard to not to feel that way.
And when I said it was a struggle to move two feet ahead of us, it was because it was, you literally had to spend almost 20, 25 minutes just to move up a couple of inches forward. And you fighting with these people and they're relentless.
They're not listening to any commands that you're giving them. The chemicals that we were deploying to repel them, that also wasn't deterring them from coming in to the point of even pushing and joining inside the tunnel regardless who was in front of them, they just want to go through.
You mentioned your colleagues, Fanone and Hodges, I'm going to roll a quick clip just to remind viewers of who they are and how violent that crowd was. And then I want to ask you a question about that.
Aquilino, as a vet, when I see scenes like that, when we pan out and see just how violent the mob as a whole was, it is shocking to me that the Capitol police didn't draw their firearms. And I am amazed at the discipline it took to not do that.
What was going through your head, and if you can speak for your colleagues through the heads of members of the Capitol police in that moment in deciding to exercise that kind of restraint, confronting a mob that wanted you all dead.
Well, I can only speak about myself and my experience. I know that I came very close to transition to it, especially when, now that I know his name and he has been convicted, Kyle Fitzsimons, he's the guy who was pulling me into the crowd.
And it didn't matter to him that there were officer telling him to stop doing whatever he was doing. He joined the fray, not once, but multiple times, and he waited until I was busy trying to help another officer who fell in front of me.
And I came to his rescue, I pulled that officer by the back of his collar, and when I did that, then Fitzsimons was able to grab my shield and my shoulder strap and kept holding onto it to the point that other riders fell on top of him, and he still wouldn't let go.
And he injured my shoulder. At that time, I was like, “Well, let me try, give this guy a hit or two, at least in his hand or arm, and if that doesn't work, then I'm going to transition to lead to force.” Immediately when I thought about that, then another officer from the Metropolitan Police came from my right and began to beat him up to the point that he released me.
And I was lucky. I was lucky because I could have been dragged just like they did to Michael Fanone. I didn't know him at that time, but he literally took my spot before all that stuff happened. But I already seen what happened to him.
He got dragged back in unconscious, back into the crowd, I mean, into the police line. We, in my opinion, collectively, but yet individually chose not to lead to force. Nobody told us not to, we just knew that if we did that, if we did not show a restraint, that we didn't know what would be the outcome.
And in a way, I think they were waiting for us to use lead to force, and we were waiting for them to use lead to force. And that kind of like kept everybody in check in terms of using firearms. But it wasn't easy. I know we were justifiable.
If we were to do that, we just didn't know who was armed. And we knew who that they had armed, but we didn't know who. And you as a police officer, you are accountable for each round that goes out of your barrel.
And if you miss or you hit grandma or whatever, even though you are justifiable, because there's no way that if there's a fire in the building and you say to yourself, “Well, I feel the heat, but I don't think it's a fire. And then you get to the fire, you get burned, that's on you for being dumb enough to get to the fire.
Because you could see there's a fire, and a lot of people saw the fighting inside the tunnel, and yet they decide to join the fire, the fight, and then say, “You know what? Oh, I didn't know that there was a fight going on.”
You didn't see the punches, you didn't see the pepper spray, you didn't see the brawl, you didn't see the crowd roaring or the pepper spray or the weapons or the shield be taken away from police officer.
So, when they go in from the court and say, “I didn't know, I got caught up in the moment,” those are dumb excuses that they only themselves are saying, telling themselves, trying to make the judge believe them.
But again, if there's a fight and you think there's a fight and you hear that there's a fight, most likely it's a fight. And a lot of people decide to join the fray because it was their intent. Their intent was to breach the Capitol, and it didn't matter whether we were police officers or not.
In some ways, your toughest battle has been dealing with the aftermath. What led you to ultimately make the decision to testify about what you experienced that day?
The fight for truth. I know right after my testimony to the giant six committee, there was a lot of media personality especially from the far right-wing. They were talking about things about me or saying things about me that they never came and talked to me about it or never had a conversation with me about it or would never even bothered to ask me about it.
But they yet either are drawing conclusion, assuming things, or misleading people, or giving false information about me.
Writing the book, I wanted to tell my story. I wanted to tell it and tell it under my own accord, because I had done and sacrificed so much for this country in order for them, including for those people who now criticize me for speaking up.
Like some of these elected officials who I risk my life for on January 6th, they could have not exit the building or get to the refuge area or safe area inside the Capitol, or evacuated the Capitol without the actions that we took, including myself on January 6th.
And those are the same people now that they're getting their mouth full of BS, saying that they support the police. They back the police, they're applaud rule of law in law and order. And when they had the chance to prove that they decided to side with the insurrectionist, they decided to go in front of the Department of Justice to request and demand that the same people who attack myself and my colleagues on January 6th, that they should be let out.
They should be released because these are patriots, these are hostages, and these are peaceful people or innocent people that happened to be in the Capitol, and they didn't do anything.
Okay, yes, but they were in the Capitol, and they didn't do anything. But not because of lack of trying, they couldn't get to us, they couldn't get to them, to the elected official, and that's why they didn't do anything.
If there are prisoners, political prisoners, and hostages, then what does that make us, the police officer? The kidnappers, the sequesters, the sicarios, the bad guys of the story, because we stopped the mob and their supporters.
It creates a moral injury on the officers and anyone who responded and did their job, people who kept their oath and defended the Capitol, including those elected officials who deny everything that happened.
You write about some of those elected officials, and I'm going to read you the quote from the book, but it gives me the impression that you're pretty clear that they know. They know the truth, and they're just cowards about admitting it, and they can't even look you in the eye.
And you say that when you bump into Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Lindsey Graham in the hallways and elevators at the Capitol, they pretend not to see you. Not acknowledging that I put my life on the line to protect theirs.
What is an interaction like that like with someone whose life you may well have saved, who you've certainly risked your life for not even deigning to look you in the eye?
I mean, I don't know, I wasn't looking for the interaction. I just happened to be walking to point A to point B, and if they did talk to me, I would've had be court with somebody. I wasn't looking for trouble, I just happened to be going and doing my jobs, even though I was in civilian clothes, they knew who I was.
I had a radio, I had my ID out, they see me on TV, but they'd rather look past me or avoid me or pretend that they're on the phone at that time. And I do say in American Shield, my memoir that out of all those elected officials from the Republican side, only Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger bothered to actually sit down and talk to me or listen to me to this day, nobody else from that side, they knew where I worked. They knew how to reach me if they really wanted to.
All they had to do was call Capitol Police and say, “Hey, can I give Seargent Gonell’s information? I would like to speak to him, or I would like to have a meeting with him,” but they didn't bother. On January 6th, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, and all the way to the 20, they were scared of what happened.
They knew who were responsible, and yet they still chose to, three weeks later, after January 6th, decided to go to Mar-a-Lago because somebody was depressed and not eating well. Well, what about the other officers? The officers that protected you? You only send Chick-fil-A sandwiches as if that was the kind of support that we needed at that time? No, we needed legislation, we needed support.
I'm glad that Officer Sicknick family, when they were at the Capitol last year for the Gold Medal ceremony, they left those Republican with their hands out waiting to be shaked. I would've had done the same thing because they only were there for the photo op. They never supported us.
But yet on TV and they tell people that they support police officers. They are the party of law and order, the party of rule of law, the physical and personal responsibility. Was there accountability in allowing Donald Trump attacking and targeting them to be hunted down room by room, when he sent them off to the Capitol.
He said, “Hang Mike Pence.” Or they were saying, hang Mike Pence, now hang with Mike Pence, there's a difference. And even him, Mike Pence didn't have the courage to come back and say anything publicly about Donald Trump when he says that one day in January, we need to move on. Well, that one day in January, you were the target.
You were being hunted down room by room and chased down by the mob. And the only reason why you left, you got to the loading dock to you, to that safe area because officers like myself, and the one that's holding him down there, put their lives on the line. And then he goes and says, “The president was not criminal, he was reckless on January 6th.”
Well, how reckless did he want the mob to be, or the president with his life and everybody else where he had the Vice President of the United States, the Speaker of the House, the nuclear codes and the speaker, the Senator, these are the next three people in the lines of succession to the presidency.
And if it wasn't, because what we did, the officers, all those people were the target of the mob. The president himself, he sent a mob to attack his own brunch of government, his own vice president, along with his daughter and his wife, and the nuclear codes. If that's not a national security incident, then I don't know what is. And they continue to support him no matter what.
I mean, the classified documents, they call it a storage issue not a breach of security like they had done to Tesera. Tesera had a couple of months ago, if you remember, the minute they find out that he was sharing information online, he was arrested within a week.
It's been almost two years, well, three years since this guy left the White House. And those documents have been somewhere in Florida, unattended, unsecure. I mean, come on, how responsible are Republican pushing for accountability on that end?
You make a really important point in your book about accountability. And I want to read that passage as well. You say that two years after the January 6th insurrection, almost a thousand defendants have been charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers, including 96 accused of using deadly weapons.
But they were mostly ordinary citizens who blindly followed the misinformation spewed by the most powerful man in the world. Despite the committee's recommendations to prosecute Trump as of this writing, not one person responsible for planning, instigating, or paying for January 6th has been arrested yet.
I want to talk about the accountability aspect of this, and the fact that the people who instigated the attack on the Capitol, they did it from a safe distance. You have Josh Hawley fist bumping the insurrectionist and then running like hell the moment he's in danger.
You have people like Ted Cruz and of course, the former president himself as far away from the barricades as they can be, but pushing others into the line of fire, into people like you and Mike Fanone and Brian Sicknick.
I understand your anger at those who were trying to beat you to death that day, but how do you feel about those far away from the barricades, in the safety of their conference rooms or limousines, who set this up?
I mean, these are the people that I think, many Republican elected officials, they know who they are, including some of themselves took part into the things that happen on January 6th. And it bothers me that they know that they're implicit. It bothers me that they don't want to hold these people accountable, and especially when I risked my life for them.
And that's kind of like what the moral injury comes in, because I know, had I not done those things that I did on January 6th, their lives would have been changed. Many other, themselves or their colleagues would have perished on that day.
And I'm not saying that I alone saved democracy or saved the Capitol. All I'm saying is be grateful that we did what we did, because I cannot have, if I were to be working still at the Capitol, couldn't do my job in a good way, knowing that I need to worry not only about the threat in front of me, but now I have to look over my shoulder, if they are behind me.
Those elected official who's downplay what happens on January 6th, if there was another January six, would they have my back? Would they try to help me close the building or would they try to restrain me to prevent me from securing the Capitol?
And on January 6th, they were running for their lives. They got to the safe area with the help and the time that we gave them to do so, and to turn around and establish in the back, that's hard to swallow. The same people who were risking my life now says that nothing happened. And if it did, it wasn't as bad as it was, as I say it was.
Well, when they say nothing happened, nothing happened to who? To me, who risked my life and had the injuries, the pictures, the videos of my ass getting beat up by more than 50 people or them running for their lives, fist bumping, and they got to go home and kiss their family and sleep well in their bed. I didn't, I was uncomfortable. I was injured.
And then the next day I was back here, with two hours rest, trying to protect them, trying to protect the country, trying to protect their democracy, trying to protect my family. I don't know, my wife, she's just got her citizenship two days ago.
And I don't know if that would've have been possible if it was not because the efforts that I did on January 6th. Would we had a different outcome, would we had a democracy still, would we had our government still running in place at that time. I think all the actions that I did on January 6th, I hope it's not in vain.
I hope that people learn from those mistakes. I hope that people do hold those responsible, those people who orchestrated the mob and they set a flame the events of January 6th, I hope they do come to be held accountable because it wasn't easy for me to come forward and speak about these things.
I think us as a police officers, we have a culture of keeping things within ourselves, within our departments. And I saw the magnitude and the gravity and the severity of that particular moment in all times where it was impossible for me to remain silent.
It was impossible for me because I risked so much of my life defending this country, defending the values of this country and principles as well. And then he have a disintegration of a political party that claimed to have and hold the police officers, law enforcement officers, the military, in every institution that make our country great. They're disintegrated and eroding it for one person. Is your fidelity to this person so bad that you are willing to throw away this country.
I spent 23 years of my life defending this country in this institution, at home and abroad, and yet you have somebody who's not even willing to sacrifice their job, their political career besides Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, nobody else is willing to defend the country of those elected officials right now in Congress. I don't see it.
You talked about moral injury, and I think that is such an important concept for our viewers to understand. We've talked about it before on the show, but it's distinct from PTSD and there's usually an element of, or often an element of betrayal involved. Can you talk about how insidious that kind of moral injury is and what it feels like to have been essentially betrayed by the people you risked your lives for?
I mean, and I want to leave you with this, I do speak about this in a lot in my book. When I joined the military, I knew the danger of risking my life to protect many people in this country. When I raised my hand again to become a police officer, I did that again willingly as a police officer.
And there are certain dangers that are inherent within the profession, and I was willing to take it, and I did. And that's what I thought I was doing on January 6th, when I risked my life, I could have just as easily walked away from that door, that entrance, like many of the right-wing conspiracy theorists say that many officers did, I didn't.
I stayed on my post. I stayed for four hours and a half, battling or more the mob both outside the plaza, on the West front and inside the tunnel. And then we stay over checking and securing the building throughout the day.
I got to the Capitol at 6:10 that day on January 6th. I didn't go home until January 7th at 4:00 AM to be back at the Capitol at eight o'clock and do another 16, 18 hours, and did that for three days.
When I risked my life, I wasn't thinking about who am I protecting, whether they're democrat, republican, independent, gay, straight, religious, or non-religious, I was doing it because it was my sworn oath.
It was my duty. I kept my oath. I did my job. I did what I was supposed to. I defended the Capitol, I defended our democracy, I defended my colleagues, I defended my wife future, my kid future, and my own. And even if that meant risking my life, I was willing to do that.
And now you have people that says, nothing happened at Capitol, or let me release this video, this clip, which selectively picks three seconds or three minutes of quietness out of what, how many hours of fighting are you talking about the beginning or the end when people are being rushed out and people look like they haven't done anything, but what about the fighting?
When the new speaker of the house, Mike Johnson releases those videos, I bet you he's not releasing the picture of him running away. I bet you he's not releasing his car, the pictures of videos of him and his colleague being escorted by Capitol Police with the mob close by.
So, that's ingenuine, that’s so disrespectful and are desecrating the sacrifices the officers like we did on that day. And desecrating the sacrifices of those officers who die as a result of January 6th. Everything that we did on that day has been squandered by the right-wing and the elected officials from the Republican side.
And yet they go on TV and said, “We support the police.” How are you supporting the police if you're not even willing to do an investigation into what happened on January 6th? And many of the members, their own members, went to the White House according to reports to plan about that day. But yet you had Jim Jordan define subpoenas and issuing subpoena, demanding records when he himself is a material witness of the event on January 6th.
And there are other who were at the Capitol in that meeting with Mike Flynn, Rudy Giuliani, and a whole bunch of people that they plan and coordinated some of these things, but they're the party of rule of law, law and order, okay, I believe it. Send me another breach, and I believe you.
But I do speak about landfill, about the moral injury. I risked my life for these individuals, I wish it would have been different. Kind of like 9/11, after 9/11, we all came together, we were resolute. We knew who attacked us, and we went after.
The difference is on January 6th, they knew who was responsible, and they chose a side to side with the person who sent the mob to attack them, attack a branch of his own government. And Bin Laden was never found to be inside those planes, but we indicted him, we indicted him, and he paid a price for sending those people to blow up the planes inside the World Trade Center.
I think we know who sent the mob to the Capitol, and I think we know who's responsible. You don't have to fly the plane in order for you to be the captain and the orchestrator of those plans, and we all know that, they know that.
And yet, that person is the one that they are supporting and nominate to become a candidate again, to do the job that he didn't want to do in the first place. I don't know if we'll survive another January 6th, I don't know if we'll survive another term.
Because the minute that he gets back in power, he will say that the last four years that he was in power didn't count, and therefore he need a mulligan. And he going to try to do away with the turn limits. Kind of like what many authoritarian regimes overseas have done, like Xi Jinping put in — all these people they had do away with term limits just to remain power.
I hope people do realize that many people sacrifice, done many sacrifices to make this country great, it's not easy. I don't understand why so many veterans and police officer do support this guy when he calls the veterans like myself, like any veterans, losers and suckers, and somebody who has not shown any respect for the bravery of being a soldier, the selflessness of being a soldier.
He doesn't even want to see them injured or wounded, but yet that's the person that they want to be their champion. The person who's running on nothing else but January 6th in 2020 election. But they tell me and my colleagues to move on when their candidate is running just on that alone.
Three weeks ago, he calls them hostages. Hostages, who am I then? The captor, the sequester, sicario, the bad guy. We did our job. We kept our oath, and nobody else was authorized to be in the Capitol, but the elected officials, police, the media and their staff, nobody else on January 6th was authorized to be there, and it wasn't peaceful.
Show the whole damn clip, all the videos, including the elected officials running for their lives. It wasn't peaceful. They got to go home, we didn't, we had to stay. We had to remain on post, there were violence. It was violence, and people need to understand that.
And I hope that you are able to read my book, see the sacrifices that I had done for this country, for this nation. It is not just about January 6th, it's a story about sacrifices and bravery. And if you can please also review it, share with your colleagues and friends, I think you will have a better understanding of where I'm coming from and the things that I had done for this great country. Thank you.
Well, thanks, Aquilino, the book is American Shield. Honored to speak with you, thank you, not just for telling the truth, but holding the line on that day, good luck with the book.
Thank you. And the book is also going to be publishing on the seventh, two days from now in Spanish. So, if you have a Spanish, Latino friend, please share the book with them. It's called Escudo Americano, EL SARGENTO INMIGRANTE QUE DEFENDIÓ LA DEMOCRACIA.
Thank you and hope you guys have a great holidays.
Thanks for listening, thank you for your support. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.