WASHINGTON -- Hailed as heroes, the law enforcement officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were honored Tuesday with Congressional Gold Medals and praised for securing democracy when they fought off a brutal and bloody attack by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the emotional ceremony, tensions still raw in the stately Capitol Rotunda, which was overrun that day when Trump supporters battled police, broke into the building and stormed the halls trying to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden's election.
“January 6 was a day of horror and heartbreak; it is also a moment of extraordinary heroism —staring down deadly violence and despicable bigotry,” Pelosi said.
In bestowing Congress' highest honor, Pelosi praised the heroes for “courageously answering the call to defend our democracy in one of the nation’s darkest hours.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said: “Thank you for having our backs. Thank you for saving our country."
But showing the raw political and emotional fallout from the violent insurrection and its aftermath, representatives of the family of fallen officer Brian Sicknick declined to shake hands with the Republican leaders, snubbing McConnell's outstretched palm.
Sicknick's mother had personally lobbied House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and other Republican leaders for the formation of an independent commission to investigate the Capitol attack, or when that failed, to support the House investigative panel. Both McConnell and McCarthy voted against the independent commission, and McCarthy has railed against the House panel as a partisan political exercise.
To recognize the hundreds of officers who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the medals will be placed in four locations — at U.S. Capitol Police headquarters, the Metropolitan Police Department, the Capitol and the Smithsonian Institution. In signing the legislation last year, Biden said that one will be placed at the Smithsonian museum “so all visitors can understand what happened that day.”
Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee said for some officers Tuesday was their first visit to the Capitol since that horrific day, a scene filled with the clanking sound of metal poles being wielded as weapons, “the air still thick" with chemical sprays as officers were assaulted by the mob of Trump supporters.
“Many of us still carry the mental, physical and emotional scars,” Contee said of the city police officers who rushed in as the U.S. Capitol Police were overrun by the mob.
“Exhausted and injured, it was your blood, your sweat and your tears that marked these grounds," he said.
U.S. Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger called it “a day unlike any other in our nation’s history. And for us, it was a day defined by chaos, courage and tragic loss.”
The ceremony at the Capitol comes as Democrats, just weeks away from losing their House majority, race to finish a nearly 18-month investigation of the insurrection.
Without support from GOP leadership, Democrats led the bipartisan probe with two Republicans and vowed to uncover the details of the attack, which came as Trump tried to overturn his election defeat and encouraged his supporters to “fight like hell” in a rally just before the congressional certification.
Awarding the medals is among Pelosi’s last ceremonial acts as she prepares to step down from leadership.
"Your valor that day is the stuff of legend," Pelosi told those officers gathered Tuesday.
More than 100 officers who fought off the rioters sustained serious injuries. As the mob of Trump’s supporters pushed past them and into the Capitol, police were beaten with American flags and their own guns, dragged down stairs, sprayed with chemicals and trampled and crushed by the crowd. Officers suffered physical wounds, including brain injuries with lifelong effects, and many struggled to work afterward because they were so traumatized.
Four officers who testified at a House hearing last year spoke openly about the lasting mental and physical scars, and some detailed near-death experiences.
Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges described foaming at the mouth, bleeding and screaming as the rioters tried to gouge out his eye and crush him between two heavy doors.
Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, who rushed to the scene, said he was “grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country.”
Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn said a large group of people shouted the N-word at him as he was trying to keep them from breaching the House chamber.
At least nine people who were at the Capitol that day died during and after the rioting, including a woman who was shot and killed by police as she tried to break into the House chamber and three other Trump supporters who suffered medical emergencies. Two police officers died by suicide in the days that immediately followed.
Sicknick collapsed and later died after one of the rioters sprayed him with a chemical. A medical examiner determined he died of natural causes.
Several months after the attack, in August 2021, the Metropolitan Police announced that two more of their officers who had responded to the insurrection had died by suicide. The circumstances that led to their deaths were unknown.
The June 2021 House vote to award the medals won widespread support from both parties. But 21 House Republicans voted against it — lawmakers who had downplayed the violence and stayed loyal to Trump. The Senate passed the legislation by voice vote, with no Republican objections.
With the U.S. Army Band singing “God Bless America,” the ceremony could be the last for some time marking the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as Republicans in the House majority are unlikely to continue a tradition of commemorating the day.
Most of the House Republicans objected to certifying Biden’s election. Some newly elected Republican lawmakers were at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pelosi, McConnell, McCarthy and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer awarded the medals. McCarthy, who is in line to become House speaker when Republicans take control, linked the Jan. 6 “heroes” to others in law enforcement.
The Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow, has been handed out since 1776. Previous recipients include George Washington, Sir Winston Churchill, Bob Hope and Robert Frost.
Signing the bill at the White House last year, Biden said the officers' heroism cannot be forgotten.
The insurrection was a “violent attempt to overturn the will of the American people," and Americans have to understand what happened, he said. “The honest and unvarnished truth. We have to face it.”