NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Andy Long lies in a military cemetery in Arkansas, between a Persian Gulf veteran and a man who served in Korea.
While the tombstones around him say where the soldiers served, the granite slab marking the 23-year-old's grave doesn't list a military campaign — at least, not one the Army recognizes.
In the two years since Long was killed and another soldier was wounded outside a military recruiting station in Little Rock by a self-professed jihadist, their families have struggled to convince the military and the federal government that the two were victims of the global war on terror, not merely a random act of violence.
"My son was killed in this war," Janet Long said after she left roses and baby's-breath at her son's grave. "It wasn't a motorcycle accident and it wasn't a convenience-store drive-by shooting."
Long's parents are fighting for formal recognition, namely Purple Hearts, for their son and his wounded comrade, Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula. Before the murder trial of Abdulhakim Muhammad ended abruptly Monday with a plea deal, they sent a hefty report to the Secretary of the Army's office and The Associated Press, detailing why the soldiers deserve the honor.
They say they are not only seeking acknowledgment of the soldiers' sacrifices but worry that without any formal recognition of being wounded in the line of duty, Ezeagwula — who still has shrapnel in his body from the shooting — may have to fight for ongoing health care.
Their goal seems nearly impossible. The award is usually reserved for U.S. troops wounded or killed in combat or in an act of international terrorism, and the Army says neither of the soldiers is eligible. While Muhammad called the shooting an act of war against America in retribution for the deaths of Muslims abroad, no federal terrorism charges have been filed against him.
Instead, it was handled in state court, with prosecutors arguing that it was a straightforward case of murder and attempted murder when Muhammad drove up to the recruiting station, drew an assault rifle and fired on the two uniformed soldiers.
"Unless the guy is arrested as a terrorist, they're not going to be successful," said John Bircher, a national spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Both the Longs and Ezeagwulas have questioned the lack of federal charges. The U.S. attorney in Little Rock has declined to comment. Ray Gall, a spokesman for Army Human Resources Command in Fort Knox, classified Long's death as a non-hostile homicide.
"I find that offensive," said Long's father, Daris, who spent 27 years in the Marine Corps, serving in countries from Somalia to Japan. "He was killed by a terrorist who's affiliated with a hostile international force."
One of Andy Long's great-grandfathers was a doughboy in World War I, and both his grandfathers were military. Janet Long served in the Navy. Andy's younger brother, Triston, picked the Army.
Andy enlisted in the Army at 23 and had just finished boot camp when he volunteered to be a recruiter. On June 1, 2009, he and Ezeagwula were standing outside the building and smoking when a black truck pulled up. Muhammad rolled down the window and fired an assault rifle at the two young man who'd never seen combat.
Ezeagwula, then 18, watched his friend fall to the ground as the bullets hit them. In the parking lot, Janet Long heard the gunshots.
Shortly afterward, authorities were handcuffing Muhammad on a nearby highway. In confessing to authorities and the AP, Muhammad — who was born Carlos Bledsoe in Memphis, Tenn., and changed his name after converting to Islam — said shooting two uniformed soldiers was justified because of U.S. military action against his fellow Muslims in the Middle East.
To the Longs and the Ezeagwulas, that raises questions about the lack of federal charges.
"I'm not going to say (Muhammad) should be put to death, but I feel like the federal government should step in and do something about it," Ezeagwula's mother, Sonja said.
While the Longs fight for their son, their quest extends to Ezeagwula, who is now 20.
"In reality, my son is dead," Daris Long said. "Putting Purple Heart on his grave, that's a vanity thing. He does deserve it. But Quinton's alive and we need to take care of the living."
After another surgery in January, Ezeagwula walks with a bit of a limp — though he tries to hide it. His mother said he takes medication to mellow him out and help him sleep. She worries that without some sort of recognition from the military, her son could be left with the burden of proving his injuries are related to his time as a soldier.
The Purple Heart, Daris Long said, "cuts a lot of red tape."
Over the weekend, before they agreed to the plea deal that took the death penalty off the table in Muhammad's trial, Daris and Janet Long visited their son's grave. She snipped at flowers, with a silver bracelet encircling her wrist that spells out her son's name, the year he was born and the year he died. Daris Long plucked the stones from his son's tombstone and placed them on the one behind his.
"To let her know we've been here," he explained.
While the Longs hope that the military will publicly honor their son as killed in the line of duty, they quietly included on his gravestone the letters "GWOT" to acknowledge the global war on terror. It's tucked right above a Bible verse, where men with longer lives are often remembered as loving husbands and fathers.
Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.