How will the military honor soldiers killed by domestic terrorists? Murder of Black soldier ignites debate
U.S. Army Lt. Richard Collins III (Photo via U.S. Army)

The spring night that U.S. Army Lt. Richard Collins III, age 23, was murdered by a white supremacist, he had a wonderful life to celebrate.

Collins would soon graduate from historically Black Bowie State University. He had just been commissioned into the Army, starting active duty in seven days. He had completed airborne training, delighting his proud Navy veteran dad.

At 3 a.m. May 21, 2017, Collins was stabbed to death at a bus stop by a member of self-described white supremacist Alt Reich Nation.

Since then, Collins’ parents have spent years imploring the Department of Defense, Veterans Administration, Army Secretary and Arlington National Cemetery to let their only son be buried among the historic graves. They have been refused due to a technicality -- Collins was one week away his first active duty assignment. Arlington insists it can only bury active duty members.

This tragedy has ignited a debate of what constitutes active duty. What if our next war isn’t overseas but on American soil confronting racist domestic terrorism?

“The military is dreading that discussion because the conflict with domestic violence is so politicized,” Black Veterans Project co-founder and Afghanistan veteran Richard Brookshire, a friend of the Collins family, told Raw Story.

But even U.S. military leaders agree that discussion is needed. Last month eight former DOD secretaries and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned Americans of “an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment” because domestic terrorism disrupted the peaceful transfer of presidential power and was still a threat to democracy.

Arlington’s refusal to allow Collins a final rest is even more perplexing because legislation initiated in 2021 by Maryland’s Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin said ROTC graduates who die before their first duty assignment “shall be treated as a member of the Armed Forces who dies on active duty.”

Brookshire is a former infantry medic in Afghanistan and a Morehouse and Columbia graduate. His nonprofit Black Veterans Project researches and documents racial inequities in the military and in veterans’ experiences.

He just recently filed an enormous Freedom of Information Act request to obtain DOD internal data on racism over decades.

“Race plays a major role in shaping military life so it may be reflected in handling funerals,” Brookshire said.

But he sees inflexibility on policy as a factor in Collins’ case. Right after Richard’s murder, “the Veterans Administration didn’t at first agree he was a veteran because he hadn’t arrived at his first duty station. If Richard had been murdered a week later, his parents would be allowed an Arlington burial."

Photos of Collins show him flanked by his proud parents. They recently discussed their son on PBS Newshour and wept after Arlington National Cemetery’s response to their request was read aloud:

“While 1st Lt. Collins death was tragic and his commitment to serve in the Army extremely admirable, the Secretary of the Army made the decision to deny the request. Exceptions to the policy are rarely approved. Unfortunately, burial space at ANC is extremely limited and service members with no active duty military service other than training do not qualify.”

DOD told the Collins they could bury their son in Quantico if the parents paid the expenses of having him exhumed and buried again. There was no offer to provide military honors or a memorial service.

His father described that offer as “a gut punch.”

Plenty of room in Arlington

Arlington National Cemetery is, in fact, expanding after experts calculated that it would run out of burial plots by 2047. Designed in 2020, the expansion onto contiguous properties gives the cemetery 70 more acres, enough land for 60,000 additional new burial sites.

When Collins’ parents wrote a June 2021 letter to Arlington, they did their best to bring his qualities to life. They said he worked at Walmart, a restaurant and a golf course to pay for college and was gifted at soccer and lacrosse. He hung an American flag in his bedroom. After his death, his parents could not bear to take it down.

Collins’ parents, Rick and Dawn, continued asking for an Arlington burial while enduring his killer’s trial.

Normally, when a soldier dies off the battlefield, his family can request a military honor guard to be present at the funeral. But according to Task & Purpose, the Army refused even that gesture of respect for their son, citing the active duty technicality.

Raw Story asked the Defense Department whether members of the National Guard or Reserves---like the young soldiers assigned to defend the U.S. Capitol after the Jan. 6 insurrection---would be considered active duty.

“It all depends what kind of orders they are on,” Major Charles Dietz explained via email. “I wish I knew more on it but we only deal with Active Duty.”

As background information for this story, Dietz shared the DOD’s recent Countering Terrorism report that outlines ways the military can identify and stop white supremacists and other extremists prevent from infiltrating and influencing the armed forces.

There is no examination of how military personnel might need to confront from domestic terrorists like white supremacists on American soil. As Dietz accurately observed, those threats are considered the domain of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security because civilian control of the military is historically a crucial principle.

If Collins were white...

And the Army recognized that such deaths are in the line of duty when it honored Collins by promoting him to first lieutenant in 2020.

“Second Lt. Collins’ actions on May 20, 2017, exhibited character and exemplary conduct of an officer of a higher rank,” then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in a proclamation. “In addition to standing firm in the face of evil, 2LT Collins was a model student and cadet at Bowie State University … Given the circumstances, it is my honor to recommend 2LT Richard W. Collins III for an honorary promotion to first lieutenant.”

His parents still hope all this will persuade Arlington to relent and will let them lay their son to rest there.

Raw Story asked Brookshire whether he thought Collins would have his military honors and Arlington burial if he was white. Brookshire paused to reflect on all that had happened.

“I don’t know that answer,” he responded. “But if Richard weren’t Black, I don’t believe he would be needing a funeral.”