OWINGS, Md. — Dawn and Richard Collins have left their son's room just the way it was when two Maryland State Troopers arrived on May 20, 2017, to tell them he'd been murdered. A wall is emblazoned with a big American flag, and there are mementos of newly-commissioned 1st Lt. Richard Collins III's time in the ROTC at Bowie State University.
Dawn Collins still goes into her son's room to console herself, and still wakes every night at 2:30 a.m., the time an alleged white supremacist stabbed him to death at a University of Maryland bus stop.
"It's just a sense of disbelief that he's not here," said his father, Richard Collins, Jr.
Court papers say Sean Urbanski muttered at Lt. Collins: "Step left, step left if you know what's best for you." When Lt. Collins said no, Urbanski plunged a knife into his chest.
For years, the Collins family has been pushing Arlington National Cemetery to let them bury their son amongst the heroes on its sacred, wooded grounds. Now, after another denial, they're appealing to the White House for help.
Collins had signed his papers, he'd been sworn in and committed himself to service. But because he was killed a few weeks before he was due to report to his first duty station, and because his papers were dated a few weeks later, Arlington is refusing to let him be interred there.
"He was murdered by a domestic terrorist," Dawn Collins said. "The same individual or enemy of this country that he took an oath to defend against."
If it had been just a few weeks later, if he'd already reported for his first command, his parents said he'd be at Arlington now. Instead, he's buried in a family plot without a headstone in a small town in North Carolina.
A spokesman for Arlington insists it would have taken more than a few weeks to qualify. "2LT was more than weeks away from his eligibility. As an ROTC graduate, he would have needed to attend his initial entry officer training, graduate and report to his operational unit to be eligible for burial at ANC under the current eligibility criteria," said John Harlow, a media relations officer.
Collins was promoted posthumously to 1st lieutenant.
"The Army seems to move the goalposts with each inquiry the Collins family makes," said Bashon Mann, a veteran who has been trying to help the family.
U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) jointly wrote a letter last year urging the cemetery to reconsider.
"As you know, Lt. Collins was an ROTC graduate of Bowie State University who commissioned as a 2LT, but was tragically murdered before reporting to his first duty assignment," they wrote. "While LT Collins does not meet the traditional criteria required for burial at ANC, his situation is unique and warrants serious consideration for a new grave exception. LT Collins had every intention of reporting to his duty station and committed himself to a life of service to his country. Until the very end, LT Collins used his Army training to stand up for what is right. Although his desire to serve was tragically cut short, [Arlington National Cemetery] has the opportunity to demonstrate the Army’s commitment to LT Collins with this exception."
Arlington's executive director wrote back early in 2022:
"Your request for an exception to the burial policy at Arlington National Cemetery underwent a thorough review," the letter said. "While Lieutenant 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 policy are rarely approved... Unfortunately, burial space at Arlington National Cemetery is extremely limited; service members with no active duty military service other than training do not qualify."
The Collins say if their son had gone through a military academy instead of through ROTC, he would qualify. And they chafe at that.
"If 2LT Collins had graduated from a service academy, he would have been eligible for [Arlington} if he died while serving as a Service Academy cadet or midshipmen or any time after. Service Academy cadets and midshipmen are specifically defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as on full-time duty in the active service of the Armed Forces," the cemetery spokesman wrote.
Three generations of the Collins family have served the United States, Collins' grandfather returned from the Korean War to a small town in North Carolina and was shot to death, while his wife was pregnant with Richard Collins, Jr. The killer was never brought to justice.
Richard Collins, Jr. retired after a career in the Navy.
"We're patriots, we love this country," Dawn Collins said. "We're Americans. And we ask that this country love us back."
They're appealing to a president who lost one of his own sons to a horrible disease.
"Richard was taken out by a terrible disease as well....racism," Dawn Collins said.
“First Lieutenant Collins embodied patriotism and a commitment to service, and his tragic death has left a void that can never be filled. I was disappointed to learn Arlington National Cemetery denied the Collins family’s wishes to honor him there, after we urged Arlington to support their request. I will continue to support his family’s efforts to carry on his memory,” Sen. Van Hollen said.
A Prince George's County judge sentenced Urbanski last year to life in prison with the possibility of parole. He could be eligible to get out in 15 years.