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His Voice Is His Weapon: Sergeant Aquilino Gonell on New Book

By Emillio Mesa

Journeying from the Dominican Republic to the United States and fighting for your piece of the American Dream is one thing. To take an oath to help others while putting your life on the line in a foreign land is another. U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell's story is that of a true American Patriot, a hero dedicated to serving his chosen country.

In American Shield: The Immigrant Sergeant Who Defended Democracy (out now from Counterpoint Press), the Army veteran details his harrowing upbringing and his experiences as a Capitol Police officer during the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol building. Gonell co-authored the book with Susan Shapiro, a journalist and the author of numerous books.

Suppose you want to know what it was like to face that angry mob of insurrectionists and the overwhelming odds facing police officers that day. In that case, this very personal, compelling memoir is imperative reading. Gonell has been featured on ABC, CBS, CNN, Telemundo, Univision, NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and El Diario. He is a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Citizens Medal.

On behalf of the Dominican Writers Association, I spoke with Gonell about his book, coping with his past traumas, and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What was the motivation to write this book?

Millions of people worldwide watched the television news as I testified to the January 6th Select Committee in front of the U.S. Congress. Suddenly, networks, pundits, and right-wing strangers were talking about me. Some repeated the facts I provided and quoted me, while others pushed their own political and racist agenda with a false, incorrect narrative. I decided to come forward to tell my story how I wanted it said, on my terms. I tried to make clear that I was an immigrant who made many sacrifices on behalf of this great nation, where I dedicated 23 years – half of my life – as a public servant in the army and as a police officer.

Your book concerns the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at our nation’s Capitol. How were you called, and how did you feel about that call to action?

As I write about in American Shield, I was assigned to work in the area around the U.S. Supreme Court. Early that afternoon, I heard the urgent call on my police radio and knew we had to respond. That’s what we were there for. I’d worked many protests in the past and didn’t think it was anything we couldn’t handle. However, as we moved closer to the West Front, I heard the roaring mob of Trump supporters and saw armed white nationalists attacking the police officers there before us and knew we were in trouble.

What ran through your mind when facing that angry, violent crowd?

Never in my life did I imagine American citizens would join a mob goaded by a president against his government in broad daylight. Here I am, an immigrant of color fighting off American-born white supremacists, trying to defend U.S. democracy. I never thought an American president would enjoy watching an assault at the Capitol, 16 blocks away from the White House, and refuse to fulfill his oath of office by committing a dereliction of duty. This kind of attack happened on foreign land, not in the U.S.

As my officers were getting beaten up and threatened, I wondered: Where is our support and backup? Where was the military? I soon realized that Trump didn’t want to stop the violence he’d caused. The January 6 Select Committee investigation revealed that he’d urged on the disorder and that he even wanted to join the mob at the Capitol.

You served in Iraq. What was that like?

It was difficult and dangerous. War changed me. I grew up. In Iraq, I learned to stand up for myself for the first time, to see the injustices around me, and not stay quiet. How do you cope with the traumatic memories? Do you get triggered?

When I returned from Iraq, it took me a while to understand how my PTSD was affecting me and my relationships. I sought treatment and learned how to cope with the triggers and keep it under control. But on January 6, the post-traumatic stress from my military service returned with a vengeance. The Department of Labor was taking too long to approve my treatment for January 6, so I sought help. My wife, family, friends, and coworkers gave me much-needed support. They kept an eye on me because several officers had died by suicide already, and I was not in a good place.

Along with physical injuries that required several surgeries and meant I could no longer keep my job, I was also dealing with moral injury. I did the right thing. I kept my oath and defended the Capitol. Yet many Republican elected officials defended the former president and his actions. Worse, they downplayed the events of that horrible day by calling those who besieged us “political prisoners,” pretending it was “legitimate political discourse.” I felt betrayed because the same individuals who supposedly supported the police and law and order implied that we — the officers — were the bad guys because we stopped the mob from harming them and their colleagues. These are the same people who escaped to their safe rooms while my colleagues and I were still battling for our lives.

You're a Dominican immigrant. When did you first come to the U.S.? I arrived in Brooklyn in 1992, needing to learn English. I struggled to adjust to everything in the U.S. No one warned me how hard it would be. My father was a livery cab driver who got stabbed twice in robberies. While most kids were playing games or having fun, I worked at a bodega, a car wash, and a tire shop or sold my mom’s pastelitos on the street, trying to learn the language. The neighborhood wasn’t great then, but I learned to avoid trouble. My parents’ marriage wasn’t great, nor was my relationship with my dad. I struggled for many years. My Grandpa Fillo in the Dominican Republic was a significant source of support.

How did this book start? How did you connect with Susan Shapiro?

I met Olivia Troye, Mike Pence’s former national security advisor, who is half-Mexican and speaks Spanish. In a lengthy conversation, she asked about my plans after I left my job. At first, I hesitated to trust anyone, especially if they were connected to the Trump administration. But I came to trust her, and she suggested I write a book to tell my side of the story. I met a great agent, Meg Thompson, who was interested. She introduced me to her client Susan Shapiro, a bestselling writing professor who’d published her memoirs and co-authored acclaimed nonfiction books by immigrants (like The Bosnia List and World In Between) that I read and admired. Susan started by helping me publish short pieces in the Washington Post and one for The New York Times titled “President Trump betrayed me.” It went viral, and several book editors reached out. Our favorite was Dan Smetanka and Dan Lopez at Counterpoint Press, which Penguin Random House distributes. I’ve been blessed with an incredibly brilliant, supportive team that understands and believes in the project.

Because allies are important, Susan Shapiro (co-author), what drew you to this project?

As a writing professor and memoirist who coauthored four other books before, I love collaborating and trying to help magnify marginalized voices. When I read the other January 6 books already out there, I realized what made the Sergeant’s perspective stand out was that he was an immigrant of color who'd defended the Capitol against American-born white nationalists desecrating democracy. And I felt an important part of the story was his background and every obstacle he’d had to overcome to be a police officer at the Capitol that day. I was honored to be able to help him amplify the truth and speak out against the liars, betrayers, and corruption that led to the insurrection and its aftermath.

In the book, you mention the "backlash" you experienced. Can you tell us what that felt like and how you handled it?

I was criticized for speaking out about what I’d witnessed and survived. The Republican politicians I risked my life for pretended that nothing happened. They undermined our sacrifices because none of them were injured or killed. But it wasn’t by chance that they were unharmed. It was because we prevented them from harm by putting our bodies in danger. Aside from desecrating the Constitution and laws they took an oath to uphold, it felt like a complete betrayal to me as a U.S. veteran and D.C. police officer. You've been honored by President Joe Biden, Congress, Nancy Pelosi, and Luis Abinader, the president of the Dominican Republic. Was it like having an out-of-body experience?

I didn’t defend U.S. democracy on January 6, thinking about medals and awards. I did it because it was my duty. Having these leaders praise me for heroism and bravery was a great honor. Being valiant nearly killed me and cost me my career. I’d rather have my job and health back than be a hero. But I’m thankful they spoke highly of me as they honored me.

What are you hoping readers take away from American Shield: The Immigrant Sergeant Who Defended Democracy?

I hope people realize that our democracy is fragile and that we must choose wisely who we elect to decide on our behalf. We need someone with an excellent moral compass. I want everyone to know that my family came to this country with dreams and hopes for a better future we worked hard for.

Many naturalized citizens of color defended the U.S. Capitol while white, native-born Americans were ransacking the laws and causing destruction. I protected this country at home and abroad to give back and contribute to the nation that gave me a chance. Many immigrants like me are hard workers who fought to be educated, pay taxes, vote, contribute to the betterment of our society, and make sacrifices for this country.

Given what you've gone through, what would you say to that little immigrant Dominican boy who spoke no English about his future?

I had so many rejections and obstacles to overcome. Whenever something didn’t go my way, I didn’t give up. I kept working hard, asking for help, and finding kind teachers and mentors who believed in me. I grew up in poverty and lived in the hoods with crimes and drugs, but I found ways to stay clean and slowly get ahead. It took me until 19 to finish high school and 26 to get my college degree. I didn’t marry, start a family, and buy a house until my late thirties. I’d say: Don’t try to be cool, rich, and popular. Decide to do good in the world and pursue things that will improve you and your world.

Visit our Bookshop and purchase a copy Here.


About the Author:

Former U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1992. He has previously stated that as a child in the Dominican Republic, he looked up to the U.S. as a land of opportunity and a place to better himself. The first in his family to graduate from college, he joined the U.S. Army after graduating and eventually became a police officer. Sgt. Gonell was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Citizen Award as one of the group of law enforcement officers who responded to the January 6th attack on the Capitol. He sustained multiple injuries during the events of that day, which he described in harrowing detail to the House panel. Running out of oxygen at one point, Gonell feared for his life. The attack, he said, was “like something from a medieval battle” — scarier than anything he had experienced in the 545 days he served in Iraq.


Emillio Mesa is a hospitality expert and the recipient of the Awards of Excellence and Traveler's Choice from Trip Advisor for his special events. Edible San Francisco, Food & Wine, and Brit+Co have covered his dinner parties. His essays and profiles have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, NY Press, HuffPost, Medium, OUT, QZ, SF Weekly, Interview magazine, and others, as well as the anthologies The Byline Bible and The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology. He's writing a memoir about meeting his mother at six years old, four fathers, being a queer immigrant, having an eating disorder, and the assault that brought him and his family together while living in their basement in The Bronx.

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