After two surgeries, he remains in physical therapy from it. The sound of Capitol workers banging on metal reminds him of it. A year later, Officer Aquilino Gonell is still living through Jan. 6.
As much as the 16-year veteran of the Capitol Police wants to move on, circumstances haven’t let him. He’s one of a handful of officers who’ve stepped into the public eye after the Capitol attack, serving as a witness for the select panel investigating the insurrection and speaking about his experience battling violent rioters outside his workplace.
He’s done that in part out of concern that those responsible for the attack by former President Donald Trump’s supporters haven’t been held accountable. Until that happens, Gonell and many of his colleagues who defended the Hill worry about a future attack on Congress.
“The only thing changed” since the riot, he said in an interview, “was that they changed the glass that was broken that day.”
The year wasn’t entirely dark: Gonell’s bonded with fellow responders who testified and continue to risk political blowback for speaking out about the horrors they faced. He and Capitol Police colleague Harry Dunn, as well as D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges and former officer Mike Fanone — the most well-known of the group — have been feted on TV and honored by lawmakers. They sometimes have dinner as a quartet, though their erratic hours make scheduling difficult.
But those highlights don’t make up for what’s broken. Gonell’s injuries still affect basic tasks like walking, playing with his son or putting on clothes. He couldn’t get through a recent lunch thanking officers for their service on Jan. 6 without the FBI calling him. Ten minutes after that, his phone rang again; it was a prosecutor calling to update him on a rioter’s sentencing.
“There are things that are still triggering. There are things that even now affect me. It’s been a hell of a year,” Gonell said in an interview.
‘I can’t avoid it’
No two responders are exactly alike in their reactions to the attack. Hodges, crushed by rioters in the West Terrace doors of the Capitol in footage seen around the world, recalled returning to full duty within a month.
“I’ve been very fortunate, both physically and mentally,” Hodges said in an interview.
At the Capitol Police, about 135 officers have retired since Jan. 6 — compared with about 80 who retired in the same timeframe last year. The department has set aside funding to retain officers and says it wants to bring on 280 more officers in 2022, noting that not all retirements were riot-related.
Officials also say the force is stronger than before Jan. 6, citing work on improvements from equipment to intelligence and beefed-up training for officers.
The Metropolitan Police Department highlighted its efforts to improve mental health services for officers including their free and confidential counseling program, the creation of a full-time position tasked with employee mental and physical well-being and efforts to create a peer support team for officers.
But recruitment won’t necessarily be easy: While law enforcement nationwide has struggled with retention amid the pandemic and following nationwide racial justice protests, the specific scars of Jan. 6 run deep in D.C.
One officer died of multiple strokes the day after he defended the Capitol; several others, including D.C. police officers, died by suicide in the aftermath. Scores more were injured that day.
Dunn, who testified about enduring a “torrent” of racial abuse during the attack, came back to work on Jan. 7. Therapy has helped, Dunn said, especially as he and his colleagues work every day at the scene of the crime.
“I can’t avoid it. So you have to learn how to be able to handle all of that,” said Dunn, who ran unsuccessfully to lead the Capitol Police union last year.
The department says it’s expanded its wellness program after additional funding from Congress. Among other resources, 42 officers are trained to provide peer support, therapy dogs visit officers and spiritual support is available. Lawmakers renamed the Capitol Police’s wellness center for Officer Howard Liebengood, who died by suicide in the days after the attack.
Therapy, though, can’t always stop the pain from boiling over into frustration.
“While they’re getting 30 to 45 days,” Gonell said of some rioters’ jail sentences, “I’m going on more than 10 months of physical therapy.”
‘This can’t happen again’
The room was almost entirely lawmakers, aides and reporters on the night the House’s Jan. 6 select panel met to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress. Except for Dunn and Gonell, who watched from the audience dressed in street clothes.
There’s a reason they didn’t come in uniform: The investigation is personal for them.
“You cannot move on from something until you figure out what happened,” said Dunn, who hopes to attend every public meeting of the riot committee. As he put it, “I want to see this all the way through.”
Dunn, Fanone, Gonell and Hodges’ decisions to testify before the Democratic-led panel have tied them to its work and opened them to conservative criticism about partisanship. But as far as they’re concerned, staying connected to the probe — no matter the risks, no matter how many allies of the former president downplay it — is part of their jobs, just like responding to the attack was.
“The most important battle is communicating to everyone what happened. Because that’s how we’re going to prevent it from happening again,” said Hodges.
An English major at George Mason University, Hodges wove more than a dozen references to terrorism into his nationally televised account of the brutalizing he endured that day. When Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) asked about his deliberate use of the term, Hodges replied that “I came prepared” and read the statutory definition of terrorism aloud.
He reflected upon the video of rioters crushing him with a bit of dark humor.
“If you’re going to pick your 15 minutes, it wouldn’t be screaming for help. You want it to be, like, this Iwo Jima moment,” he quipped, referring to the iconic World War II battle. But he understood the voice that his suffering gave him: “Because people saw me at this vulnerable moment, they really understood it and had a visceral reaction to what happened that day.”
Gonell was blunter about his desire for accountability as some on the right seek to whitewash Jan. 6.
“It is very, very f—ing insulting what they do, what they say,” he said.
‘I don’t know if it helps’
Politics and publicity were the last thing on the trio’s minds when they first joined the force.
Dunn “liked the idea of helping people.” Working for the Capitol Police helped Gonell transition from military service in Iraq to civilian life. Hodges could “feel the fluorescent lights draining my soul” when he considered office jobs and chose the police in order to work outside.
All of them are back to work. But their best-known colleague isn’t staying in law enforcement: Fanone, a frequent presence on cable news after the riot, resigned from the force last month and is joined CNN as a contributor this month.
His fellow officers demurred on whether they would ever follow his path.
“Right now, I’m just staying focused on my recovery,” Gonell said. “The goal is for me to get to the point where I am able to do my job.”
He and Dunn have gained sizable social media followings, frequently tweeting their unfiltered views about Jan. 6 in a personal capacity.
But Hodges prefers his relative anonymity. He wants justice as much as his cohorts; he’s simply not sure whether the attention can move the needle.
“I can walk through the world unnoticed” compared with Fanone and Dunn’s famous profiles, Hodges said. “I don’t know if it helps more to talk about this more in the media or not, or if it just detracts from the salient points … It’s just hard to tell whether it’s the right thing to do.”