Nehls, R-Texas, had spent the eight previous years as sheriff of Fort Bend County, Texas, and was a retired major in the U.S. Army Reserve. So when rioters tried to break into the House chamber, Nehls’ instant reaction was to run to the danger to help the police.
“My training kicked in that day,” Nehls told Fox News in an interview. “I’ve been in tense situations before. And for the last 30 years, I’ve always been a guy I guess … that runs to the danger. I’m a guy that tries to defuse situations. And that’s what I did. I tried to defuse that situation. And make sure that nobody got through those center doors.I refused to leave.”
Protesters were crowding outside the House chamber yelling, pounding and banging on the doors, Nehls recalled. The doors were “shaking violently.”
Capitol Police directed the members of Congress inside to take cover and don gas masks, but Nehls sprung to action to help police block rioters from entering the chamber.
Others had already moved furniture to block the chamber door. And Nehls took off his suit jacket and stood side by side with the police to do whatever possible to prevent the rioters from making it inside.
Photographers inside the chamber captured images of Nehls and police trying to protect the House floor from being breached.
“I will not leave,” Nehls told Fox News that day. “I said I will be staying here with my brothers and sisters in blue.”
Another congressman, Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., also joined in the fight and broke off a wooden hand sanitizer machine to use as a weapon to ward off the protesters. Nehls, unarmed at the time, thought it was a great idea and did the same with another hand sanitizing machine.
“If you see me with this long wooden-like jousting stick that was a wooden hand sanitizer that I formed into some type of weapon … I had leaned up against the furniture and I was ready to defend myself with that,” Nehls said.
Shortly thereafter, the glass to the door broke in a loud forceful shatter. A police officer to Nehls’ left got on a radio and announced, “shots fired, shots fired,” Nehls recalled. In the chaos of the day, Nehls said the officer mistakenly thought a gunshot shattered the glass. Nehls believed it was a man with a flagpole who violently broke the glass.
Through the broken glass, a young protester noticed Nehls was wearing a Texas face mask.
“He looked at me, and he said, ‘You’re from Texas, you should be with us,'” Nehls recalled.
Nehls told the man he was acting “un-American.”
“This is criminal what you’re doing, and you need to stop,” Nehls recalled telling the man.
Shortly thereafter, Nehls said he heard a gunshot in the Speaker’s Lobby just outside the House chamber door. He believes that was the shot fired by Lt. Michael Byrd that killed Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old California woman and U.S. Air Force veteran.
Babbitt had tried to climb through one of the doors where glass was broken out when the shot was fired, according to the Justice Department.
As a former law enforcement officer, Nehls had high praise for the rank-and-file officers who were protecting the Capitol that day, and he says those protesters who committed acts of violence against them belong in prison.
But he strongly disagrees with the decision to clear Byrd of any wrongdoing in the shooting of Babbitt. Nehls said the shooting was “unjustified.”
“Babbitt didn’t even see him there,” Nehls said. “Ashli Babbitt didn’t even know that there was a gun being drawn at her. She would have never jumped through the damn window if she would have known that. Ashli Babbitt was murdered that day.”
Byrd told NBC News that he repeatedly yelled orders to step back that went ignored by the crowds, and the shot was a “last resort.”
A year later, Nehls calls the Jan. 6 attack a “black eye for this country and the American people.” He says the violence was preventable had Capitol Police leadership been prepared and had the National Guard been on hand.
“The shame of all this is that it should have never happened,” Nehls said.