LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — After more than six years of letters, appeals and finally a change in federal law, an Arkansas soldier who was killed and another who was wounded in a 2009 shooting outside of a Little Rock Army-Navy recruiting center were awarded Purple Hearts on Wednesday.
Family members of Pvt. William Andrew “Andy” Long, 23, of Conway, who was killed when Abdulhakim Muhammad opened fire, squeezed each other’s hands inside the Arkansas State Capitol as they were presented with Long’s medal.
Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula of Jacksonville, who survived the attack on June 1, 2009, after being shot nine times, said following the ceremony that he held back tears when his medal was pinned to him. He said he fought a feeling of sadness that his friend and fellow enlistee Long wasn’t there to share the honor.
“I still feel like a regular person. I don’t feel like no hero or anything like that,” said the 24-year-old Ezeagwula, who still has shrapnel in his head and chest. “And I don’t really want you to consider me as a hero either. That don’t make me too comfortable. … Andy, he’s the hero to me. He saved my life.”
A bugler played taps outside on the Capitol stairs for the ceremony and National Guardsmen fired three volleys from their rifles nearby. The golden doors, normally shuttered except for inaugural or state ceremonies, sat open so those inside the Capitol could hear what was taking place outdoors.
Pvt. Long’s father, Daris Long, has been the major force behind the fight to get his son and the other soldier honored.
“I’ve said it’s peaks and valleys,” he said after the ceremony, as two soldiers took down a portrait of his son that had stood next to the podium. “This (ceremony) is a peak. Tonight might be a valley … because of missing Andy and knowing he’s gone.”
Before a recent federal law change, Purple Hearts only could be awarded to military members who were injured or killed, or who later died because of injuries sustained while serving on foreign soil.
Language added to the National Defense Authorization Act by U.S. Sen. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican, during the 2015 fiscal year allows the honor for military members killed or wounded in an attack on American soil that was carried out by a foreign terrorist organization or targeted them for their military service.
Muhammad pleaded guilty in state court to charges of capital murder and attempted capital murder and was sentenced to life in prison. No federal terrorism charges were filed against the self-professed jihadist, which made the Purple Heart designation harder to obtain.
But because of the law change, attacks like the Little Rock shooting and one in Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 dead and more than 30 wounded in November 2009 won’t be seen as a “drive-by shooting or workplace violence,” Daris Long said.
“We knew, the first time we saw the perpetrator talking about why he did the Little Rock shooting … he’s a terrorist,” the father added. “And for the government to deny what it was, when it was terrorism and we knew it was … that was a waste. That was denying the honor that these two deserve. And I wasn’t going to stand for that.”
When asked what Pvt. Long would say about the honor, he quickly replied, “That’s cool, Dad,” noting those were his son’s last words to him when they spoke on the phone the night before he died.
This story has been corrected to show that the ceremony was Wednesday, not Monday.
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