Saturday, July 04, 2015

TOP STORY >> Two awarded Purple Hearts

Leader staff writer

Former Army Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula of Jacksonville, who was shot numerous times by a self-proclaimed terrorist in 2009, received the Purple Heart in ceremonies at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

Fellow solider and friend, Pvt. William (Andy) Long of Conway, was killed in the same attack and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

The June 1, 2009, attack on Long and Ezeagwula was the first homegrown terrorist incident following 9/11.

Ezeagwula knew the Purple Heart was a big deal, but it didn’t sink in until after the ceremony when an individual asked the 24 year old for his autograph.

“That really was the highlight of the day,” Ezeagwula said. “It certainly made me want to cry and, had I, they would have been tears of joy.”

More than 300 friends, family members, military members, dignitaries and complete strangers filled the second floor of the Capitol for the ceremony. Members of the Patriot Guard stood with American flags on the second floor as well as third- and fourth-floor balconies.

Nikki Brooks Winn, a Gold Star sister, meaning her brother was a Purple Heart recipient, sang the National Anthem and the words echoed off the marble walls, giving a certain solitude to the awards ceremony.

Ezeagwula, along with Long’s father, Daris, were awarded the Purple Heart by Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. Long’s mother, brother and sister were awarded the Gold Star.

“It was just overwhelming,” Ezeagwula said. “I truly appreciate all the love that was shown. It made me feel good about myself.”

But he was quick to say he doubted that the Purple Heart would bring closure or ease the memories.

“I was shot five times and still go to the VA once a week. I’ll never get that time back. I can never change what happened,” Ezeagwula said.

He still thinks of the man who did the shooting, Abdul-hakim Muhammad, 23 at the time, who pulled up in a van and opened fire while Ezeagwula and Long were outside the Little Rock recruiting station, taking a break and discussing recent trips outside Arkansas.

Ezeagwula and Long were part of a recruiting program called “hometown recruiting assistance,” under which soldiers tell their stories to potential recruits. He said he was participating in the recruitment program because he wanted to show his peers that there is more out there beyond Arkansas and that the Army is a good way to see it.

Muhammad was charged with one count of capital murder and 16 counts of engaging in a terroristic act, charges stemming from shots fired at an occupied building.

The attacker was a native of Memphis and a Muslim convert. He told authorities that he was mad at the U.S. military because of what they had done to Muslims in the past.

“It’s a hard task to let go. It will take a lot to do that,” Ezeagwula said.

But he added that things were “falling right.” Even though his mother, Sonya, still lives in Jacksonville, Ezeagwula has moved to Little Rock and is a sophomore at Philander Smith College. He is majoring in business administration.

By 9 p.m. Wednesday evening, he was exhausted from the day’s activities and trying to get something to eat. “I didn’t have a chance to eat at all during the day even though there was food at the reception after the ceremony.”

Ezeagwula said he joined the Army because “I just wanted to help my family out. I thought it was a good way, and then, when I got in it, I actually learned to love the Army.” He was medically discharged shortly after the shooting.

He said that he and the Long family have become very close since the shooting. He said Long’s family “welcomed me with open arms” and has been supportive. And he expressed thanks to well-wishers and those who have offered prayers: “I really appreciate what they have done for my family and Pvt. Long’s family.”

It was Long’s father, Daris, who pushed for six years for changes in the rules and regulations regarding the Purple Heart so that his son, Ezeagwula and others who have been attacked while in the United States by terrorists or those influenced by terrorists would be properly honored.

The bereaving father, a former Marine, said it was about the motto of “never leaving anyone behind.”

Long told those at the ceremony his push was not for the Purple Heart but to complete a promise he made to his son just days before the attack.

“He had called me on Sunday, and I cut the conversation because I was busy with something that was only important to me. I called him back, apologized and said I would always be there for him,” the father said.

Sen. John Boozman (R- Ark.), one of many politicians at the ceremony, said, “The pair were targeted for their service, devotion and dedication to our country in a war where the frontlines against terrorism extend within our nation.

“Awarding Privates Long and Ezeagwula the Purple Heart for their service and sacrifice is simply the right thing to do.”

After the ceremony, many people told Ezeagwula’s mother, Sonya, that he was a hero.

She replied, “He was a hero before he got shot. He was our family’s hero.”