Column: A ‘great one’ in Riverhead gone too soon

To celebrate his 30th birthday, Dashan Briggs and his wife, Rebecca, planned a trip to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. The couple share the same birthday: Dec. 28.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Dashan, a Riverhead native, reached out to several friends and invited them to come along. It was both the celebration of a milestone birthday and a send-off for the staff sergeant, who was set to begin another overseas deployment a few weeks later as a member of the 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach, where he had served since 2010.

His friends decided to surprise him. Daniel Jones of Northampton, who grew up playing football alongside Staff Sgt. Briggs at Riverhead High School and remained a close friend, lamented that his work schedule might not allow him to go. Other friends came up with similar excuses.

“I just had to play the game,” Mr. Jones said. “When the day came and he saw us walk through the doors while we were waiting for the ferry, he just had this big smile on his face.”

It is that infectious smile friends remember when they reflect on Staff Sgt. Briggs, one of seven service members who died last week in a helicopter crash along the Iraq/Syria border. Even in high school, where Staff Sgt. Briggs stood out as a dominant two-way player on the Blue Waves’ undefeated 2006 football team, he always had an intensity about him on the field. But then he’d crack that smile.

“When he broke out in a smile, the entire practice lit up,” said Leif Shay, varsity football coach at Riverhead, who remained close to his former player over the past decade. “He had a genuine, beautiful smile.”

Jordan Harden, who graduated with Staff Sgt. Briggs in 2007, said about a dozen people joined in the birthday celebration and, as usual, Staff Sgt. Briggs was the life of the party, as usual.

“I didn’t expect that to be the last time I saw him,” Mr. Harden said. “I’m really going to miss him.”

Mike Owen, another Riverhead native and close friend, missed the trip because his wife had recently given birth to their first child. A week before Staff Sgt. Briggs left for deployment, he stopped by Mr.

Owen’s house to visit them and their month-old son.

Captain Michael O’Hagan, the public affairs officer for the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing, speaks at a press conference Tuesday about efforts underway to support the families. (Credit: Dana Shaw/Southampton Press)

They talked about looking forward to the good times ahead: hanging out during the summer and swimming in the pool. When Staff Sgt. Briggs left, they hugged and Mr. Owen told him to be safe, just as he had so many times before.

“You see him go away, but you always expect him to come back,” Mr. Owen said. “Then you get the news of this, you’re in shock. You still don’t think it’s real.”

When Mr. Owen got married last year, Staff Sgt. Briggs, Mr. Harden and Mr. Jones, were his groomsmen.

They viewed the staff sergeant not only as a friend, but as a role model. They looked up to him for what he accomplished in his life, his determination, his commitment to his family and his service to his country.

“I don’t call him a friend; he’s a brother to me,” said Mr. Owen, who works as a scout for the Green Bay Packers.

On a Friday night a few days before Staff Sgt. Briggs left for deployment, Mr. Jones stopped by his home in Port Jefferson Station, where he was enjoying time with his family. The two friends reminisced and shared a few laughs.

Mr. Jones said he’s reflected back on that moment, the last time he saw his close friend, in recent days.

“I’m just so glad I got that night and I was able to give him a hug and tell him I love him,” he said.

Mr. Shay said he’s often brought up Staff Sgt. Briggs as an example for the next generation of athletes who come through the Riverhead football program. Staff Sgt. Briggs never made excuses in his life, he said. He led by example and was the type of man Mr. Shay hoped players admired and aspired to be like, on the field and off.

He even asked Staff Sgt. Briggs to consider joining the school’s coaching staff. At the time, though, the young man was just beginning a family and the timing didn’t work, Mr. Shay said.

When Mr. Owen received the devastating news, he reached out to Rebecca Briggs to let her know he’s always one call away. The entire Riverhead community has rallied together to support his surviving family, including his two young children, who will grow up to learn the sacrifice their father made for so many.

“Riverhead lost a great one,” Mr. Owen said.

Top photo caption: Dashan Briggs, center, pictured making a tackle during a Riverhead football game in 2006. (Credit: Garret Meade, file)

The author is the editor of The Suffolk Times and the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].