Many Americans think that the saga of the Capitol riot will soon be at its end. For two years, this country has endured an impeachment, lawsuits, criminal investigations, congressional hearings, televised theater. And this week, Congress will release its final report.
But there is nothing final about this moment. A funeral doesn’t put an end to your grief. The trauma cannot be bookended by paperwork. These scars cannot be masked with fine print, debated in committee.
For me, this story cannot end overnight, because the riot itself was an attack not just on an essential American institution but also on the people who live and serve to protect it.
I was at the Capitol during the riot. I stood shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues, fighting for our lives, to protect the Capitol and the people who work there. Even now, I can barely talk about it.
In fact, very few Capitol Police officers can.
Sometimes we hold it to our chests, letting it weigh us down. Sometimes we forget for one moment that it happened, and we feel like ourselves again.
Until someone brings it up.
And then it physically hurts to talk about it.
That day, we held our fellow officers’ hands as they got medical treatment and held vigil beside their hospital beds. We performed CPR on strangers and friends. We went home and washed blood, chemicals and bodily fluids off ourselves. We told our loved ones that we were all right.
For the most part, we were. In an outstanding show of resiliency, officers got a few hours of sleep and then showed up, battered and bruised, to work the next day. Not only that, they showed up to the very places they had just been traumatized. They stood post in the crime scenes where, just hours before, they were battling for their lives. Day after day, officers came to work with the knowledge that not all of us had made it out alive.
But months later, I was still struggling to process what had happened. Many of us were.
On June 9, I was in the waiting room off the main hearing chamber, about to testify before the committee investigating the attack. There was a TV playing the hearing; I remember the noise leaking out from the chamber and then hearing it again, two seconds later, from the TV, as if the sound had been echoing through the halls. If I just focused on the echo, I rationalized, I wouldn’t have to hear what was being said. The truth is, I didn’t want to hear it. I couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over.
And then I heard the noise that haunts me to this day: the roar of the crowd at the riot. It instantly transported me back to Jan. 6. I started shaking and sweating. “I’m not there. I’m not there,” I chanted to myself. “It’s over. I’m not there.” But nothing was working. I could feel sweat trickling down my back. I tried to take deep breaths. From my training with the Capitol Police’s peer support program, I knew I was in real danger. I took off my shoes to feel the carpet underneath my feet, and I put my hands on a wooden desk — anything to tell my body that it wasn’t back on the West Front of the Capitol that January. I must have looked insane.
Slowly, my consciousness came back to the waiting room, and my heart slowed. I took a sip of water. They called for a brief recess. I was next. I went to a bathroom, still shaking, and looked in a mirror. Could I do this? Could I actually stand in front of these people and tell them my story? What if I broke down as I just did? I started praying. I didn’t know what else to do. I asked God to let people see me and hear me and know that my words were true. I knew that as long as I told the truth, I didn’t have anything to worry about.
A sense of calm came over me. I was ready. I was ready for everyone to finally hear what I had lived with for a year and a half, ready to show people the face of someone who had been to hell and back again. And if that person happened to have shaking hands and sweat on her face, that’s what people were going to see. They needed to look at me, hear me and understand me. I needed to let America in. I took a deep breath and left the bathroom a different person.
Recently I gave a speech in which I talked about the strength beyond measure I see in the small moments and everyday deeds of my fellow Capitol Police officers. I see it in the way they put flowers on the memorials of their fallen comrades. I see it in the way they continue to show up for one another, day in and day out. I see it in their laughter in the hallways and during roll call, in the way they train the next generation of their peers how to do the job and teach them the lessons we had to learn the hard way on Jan. 6. I see strength in the way officers are carrying on. I get my strength from them. Any time I’m tempted to worry about the future, I remind myself that these people made sure I went home alive that day. If they had to, they would do it again.
But the trauma kicked off by the Capitol riot is still with us. Only by talking to one another and seeking out help and support from our fellow officers will we find peace — and that could take years. But I sincerely hope that any law enforcement officer knows that in a crisis, my phone is always on. You are never alone as long as you know me.
Caroline Edwards is a Capitol Police officer.
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