WASHINGTON -- April 5 is an important date for Sharri Briley.
It was 40 years ago today when Briley went on her first date with her eventual husband, Donovan. They met at a blood donation drive at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
"Lo and behold, he gets my number from the blood bag and ends up calling my house," she recalled.
"Our first date was going to the Villa, which was a mainstay for a very long time, an Italian restaurant. Then, we went to the UALR planetarium."
April 5 is also Gold Star Spouses Day, which recognizes people whose spouses have died in military combat or from a condition connected to military service. Briley became an advocate for Gold Star families following Donovan Briley's death in October 1993. While he was serving with the Task Force Ranger unit in Somalia, Donovan Briley's helicopter was taken down by enemy forces.
"How ironic is that?" Briley said regarding the date.
When Briley spoke with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, she had just finished setting up a table at the state Capitol for Hearts of Our Heroes, a nonprofit organization focused on helping families of deceased military members. Her advocacy work has additionally involved going to the U.S. Capitol, where she has joined other Gold Star spouses in advocating policy changes before lawmakers.
Her most recent trip to Washington, D.C., happened in March, when the Gold Star Wives of America participated in a joint congressional presentation concerning the priorities of military organizations during the 118th Congress.
One of the Gold Star Wives of America's priorities of the current Congress is changing the dependency and indemnity compensation for spouses of deceased service members. Surviving spouses are eligible for veterans benefits and compensation, including a minimum monthly payment of $1,562.74. Outside of adjustments for cost-of-living allowance changes, there have not been any significant changes to the amount since 1993.
Briley and other Gold Star spouses advocates have pushed for increasing the amount, comparing the amount to that for disabled veterans (a maximum of $3,621.95 monthly) and for spouses of deceased federal employees, which totals 55% of the worker's accrued retirement benefits.
Briley draws on her own experiences in explaining why the change is needed. She became a widow with a 5-year-old daughter, Jordan, upon Donovan Briley's death.
"I was young. I was able to work in my daughter's school," she said. "I started working to supplement because it is not enough. An increase would help significantly, especially with inflation. Everything is just so expensive now."
Federal lawmakers have backed legislation to address the compensation rates. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., joined Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to introduce the Caring for Survivors Act in February, with a group in the House of Representatives supporting a companion bill.
The measure would make the amount for spouses of deceased military members equal to the rate for people married to federal employees. The legislation also would make changes to policies affecting survivors of veterans disabled at the time of their death; the minimum timeframe for receiving compensation would fall from 10 years to five years.
Speaking to the Democrat-Gazette, Boozman recognized the differences between rates for surviving spouses have been problematic, calling the introduced legislation an attempt to "balance that out."
"The world's a lot different now than it was in 1993," said Boozman, of Rogers. "It's time. It's due for us to look at this and make sure these families are taken care of."
Boozman and Tester introduced the measure during the previous Congress, although lawmakers never passed the legislation out of the body. Briley submitted written testimony to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee endorsing the bill.
The legislation is just one measure affecting military members and families that has Boozman's attention during this Congress. The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee advanced a bill in February to increase the salaries of physicians and technicians in hopes of reversing the workforce shortages at Veterans Affairs facilities. The full Senate last week passed a bill adjusting benefits for veterans with service-related disabilities and compensation for spouses and families of disabled veterans.
Boozman joined Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Ted Budd, R-N.C., on a resolution designating today as Gold Star Wives Day. The measure was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Boozman said he is optimistic about the Caring for Survivors Act's chances in the current Congress, referencing strides in recent congressional sessions to address veterans' issues. The senator specifically mentioned the PACT Act as an example. President Joe Biden signed legislation last August to expand military benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service, including those who served in military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"That takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of time," the senator said. "Now, we're starting to turn our attention to issues like this that haven't been dealt with in a long time."
Sen. Angus King, an independent representing Maine, has joined Boozman and Tester in supporting the Caring for Survivors Act. Reps. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., are leading the effort in the House.
"That's the nice thing about veterans' issues. It isn't about Republicans or Democrats," Boozman said. "It's just taking care of the people that serve us on a daily basis and those that have served."
Briley is optimistic as well. When speaking about her March trip to Washington, D.C., she mentioned the presentation involved educating public officials about the personal effects of the current compensation rate.
"Maybe it was about timing, but it was well received among the committee members during that joint hearing," she said. "I feel like they really took to heart what was being presented to them on those panels."
Donovan Briley's death never escapes Sharri Briley. She still has the care packages and letters from her husband. She remembers one letter between her husband and Jordan with reminders about doing well in school and the importance of honesty.
"Just little life lessons, but that was the last letter that she received from her father," she said.
"That hole is always there, but being so involved in a city that veterans are present, it helps, and gives -- for me -- a purpose to continue on and keep his memory alive."