250: The Blog
Press Shop | 07.04.2019
For Sharri Briley, the Fourth of July is a day of sadness as much as it is a celebration. For Mrs. Briley and the thousands of other Arkansans who have lost a loved one who was fighting for the United States, the sacrifice never ends.
Every day for the past 26 years, Mrs. Briley has walked through her life without the man she married for life.
Every day from that moment in October 1993 when Somali soldiers shot down her husband’s Blackhawk helicopter in the Battle of Mogadishu, Mrs. Briley has lived out the sacrifice in the little details and the big moments.
But even as she has walked this path not of her choosing, Mrs. Briley has chosen to make her life and the death of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Donovan Briley count for something bigger than their lives and loss.
Most recently, her determination to give meaning to her family’s sacrifice was apparent in her comments about the Gold Star Family monument that is under construction on the west side of the Capitol. She has been one of the ardent supporters of the Little Rock Gold Star Families Memorial Monument project, led by several retired Marines after state legislators voted to allow organizers to place the monument on capitol grounds.
"It brings tears to my eyes knowing that they wanted to recognize our loss in a joyful way," Mrs. Briley said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Our community, alongside the countless other Gold Star Families from Arkansas, will have a place to come together and honor the brave men and women who have sacrificed their tomorrow for our today.”
Shari Penrod and Donovan Briley both grew up in Central Arkansas. Their courtship began on April 5, 1983, when Sharri was donating blood for an ROTC drive at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Donovan, an ROTC cadet, was volunteering. They chatted, and after Sharri left, he copied her name and phone number from the bag of blood she had just donated. When she answered his telephone call that night, he said, “This is your friendly Red Cross volunteer.” They married in December 1984. Their honeymoon included a drive to flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
When Donovan drew the assignment for Somalia, they were living at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he was a Black Hawk pilot with the U.S. Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), better known as Night Stalkers.
The last time Sharri saw Donovan was in August 1993, when he left for Somalia. Their daughter, Jordan, was five.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Donovan Briley’s nickname was “Bull.” On October 3, 1993, Bull was the co-pilot of the lead Black Hawk in the United States’ mission to Mogadishu to snatch two Somali military leaders.
Mr. Briley and his pilot, Cliff “Elvis” Wolcott, had safely flown Super-Six-One into the city. But they never left. Somali fighters knocked them out of the sky with a rocket-propelled grenade. Mr. Briley and Mr. Wolcott died instantly in the crash.
Mrs. Briley held the funeral service for her husband at First Baptist in North Little Rock, the church where they had been married nine years and ten months earlier.
“I couldn’t have made it without the comfort and peace of God,” Mrs. Briley says. “Twenty-six years later, I’m still fully relying on God.”
Governor Asa Hutchinson has made support for Arkansas veterans and their survivors a priority of his administration. He allocated nearly $2 million to support the new Veterans Home in North Little Rock. He supported and signed into law a bill that exempts military retirement pay from Arkansas income tax. This spring, he signed a law that allows the surviving spouse of a veteran to obtain a Purple Heart license tag.
Sharri Briley was at that ceremony. Mrs. Briley, in fact, was the inspiration behind the law.
The quest began in 2018 when Mrs. Briley went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to buy a Purple Heart license tag in honor of her husband. But current law said that only the recipient of a Purple Heart could obtain the specialized tag. A surviving spouse could renew a Purple Heart tag only if the veteran had obtained it. Mrs. Briley decided to do something about that. She contacted Nikki Brooks Winn (whose brother Staff Sergeant Paul Brooks was killed in action in May 2009) and Andrea Fisher of Survivor Outreach Services. Nikki contacted state Representative Jack Ladyman, who sponsored House Bill 1012. Governor Hutchinson signed the bill on March 11, 2019.
Bull Briley’s legacy lives on in many ways. Jordan, who was five when her father died, now has two sons. A road on Camp Robinson bears his name. Because he and Sharri paid the ultimate price, she works with others who are learning that the sacrifice never ends.
This year, as July 4 approached, Mrs. Briley had reason for small celebrations. The Gold Star Families monument is going up at the capitol and scheduled for dedication in late September. And as she makes one of her frequent trips past the site to check progress of construction, the sun will glint off her brand new Purple Heart license tag.
(Cover photo: Donovan Briley. First photo: Donovan and Sharri Briley at his graduation from flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in August 1985. Second photo: Jordan Briley helps her father plan a flight. Third photo: Wreckage of the Blackhawk helicopter that Donovan Briley was flying on October 3, 1993. It was recovered 20 years after Somali soldiers shot it down. Fourth photo: Jordan in a Blackhawk. Photos courtesy of Sharri Briley.)