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Barbecue brings out friends, family of local airman who perished in Iraq crash

New York Air National Guardsman Dashan Briggs, of

New York Air National Guardsman Dashan Briggs, of Port Jefferson Station, was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq on March 15. Credit: New York Air National Guard

A Sunday barbecue laden with memories brought together family, friends and colleagues of  Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs,who perished in a March helicopter crash while serving in Iraq with the National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing.

“It’s a great way to honor Dashan,” said Jordan Harden, 29, a Riverhead High School Class of 2007 classmate of Briggs, who helped organize the gathering in Riverhead’s Stotzky Park.

Briggs, 30, of Port Jefferson Station, was one of four 106th airmen who died in the March 15 helicopter crash, during one of the unit’s frequent deployments to Iraq during the 15 years since President George W. Bush sent troops there in 2003.

Briggs, whose high school football jersey will be retired during an Oct. 13 Riverhead High School home game, had roots both in one of Long Island’s most economically depressed neighborhoods, and in one of Long Island’s most elite military units.

Harden said Briggs had been an inspiration to him and many of the young people they knew from the Riverhead neighborhood they grew up in, who saw, in his determination to excel in the military, possibilities for their own success.

“He was such a positive role model,” Harden said, as strains from Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” mixed in the breeze with the aroma of grilling meats. “Even though we were all the same age, we all aspired to be like Briggs .”

The barbecue was the latest in a string of community events designed to support Briggs’ wife and children. Last month, the Tunnel to Towers charity paid off the mortgage on their home. A fundraiser golf tournament is planned next month. .

Briggs’ wife, Rebecca, said the support from the community has been uplifting, even as it has sometimes been difficult to share her grief so publicly.

“You’ve got to put a brave face on,” she said, as their children, 2 and 3, scampered excitedly nearby. “And this is making my kids happy, so it’s a good thing.”

“Hopefully, this will be an annual thing to remind people who he was and what the military does for us,” she said.

The gathering drew more than a dozen members of the 106th, including Rich Sotomayor, 39, a helicopter crew member who had the same special missions aviator responsibilities as Briggs.

He said the death of Briggs and the three other 106th airmen reverberated through the Rescue Wing, creating both sadness and unity.

“You go to deployments, you train together, you go to duty stations, so you spend a lot of time with each other,” said Sotomayor, who grew up in Stony Brook, and who brought his wife and child to the barbecue. “For me, things like this keep their memory and their lives in the forefront.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) came with his wife and 11-year-old twin daughters, sitting with members of Briggs’ family as they snacked on pulled pork, corn on the cob and other picnic fare.

“The Briggs family has gotten a lot of love from the community,” said Zeldin, a major in the Army Reserves who served in Iraq. “His sacrifice was for our entire country.”

Briggs grew up in the home of his grandfather, Eli Briggs, 82, who greeted attendees with a smile and a handshake.

“We’ve had awesome support since this happened,” he said, gesturing toward the diverse gathering.

“But I have a mixture of feelings,” he continued.

“I’m happy to see people out here supporting us like this,” he said. “And at the same time, I wish this weren’t happening.”

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