VHS grad turned US Army officer reaches aviation school with honors

Brian Donohue and his grandfather Gerry Dreiling visiting Ft. Rucker in November. “That is the aircraft my dad flew – the Caribou. The plaque is honoring those service crews,” said Debbie Donohue.


Brian Donohue has been shaped by the local community — playing with neighbor kids in the greenbelts, participating in organized sports and leading organizations — as he follows his grandfather’s footsteps to one day fly helicopters. This week he started pilot training with the United States Army, something he will be doing for the next six months before getting assigned to an aircraft.

While no recruit is exactly alike, Donohue embodies the reasons for – and what most hope to be – the qualities of a United States soldier. Donohue, a long time Steiner Ranch resident, graduated from the U.S. Army ROTC in June at the top 10 percent of his class, tallied from all cadets across all universities nationwide. 

“Like many others, my love of country is what led me to desire a career in the military,” explained Donohue of his commitment. “From there, my desire to lead and become an officer is why I picked ROTC.”

Factoring such things as GPA, physical fitness and leadership skills, this is not only a national honor, it also opened the door to a childhood dream in aviation that seemed out of reach. Being at the top 10 percent of his class guaranteed his choice among Army careers. 

“I felt it was unattainable due to the sheer amount of people who aspire to be Army Aviators and the limited spots available,” said Donohue, who wants to be a helicopter pilot. “I had thought ‘there is no way I am going to be able to out-compete this many people.’”

Looking back, close family and friends don’t find his success surprising. Though a military career was never discussed growing up, it was the fitting conclusion for someone who often looked beyond himself.

March of a soldier

The course of his life took shape following a move to Steiner Ranch with his family in 2004. Donohue was in first grade at the time. “After we moved here, he wanted an army birthday party,” recalls Debbie Donohue, his mother. She went all out – buying items at an army supply store, water guns and creating an obstacle course. Party attendees arrived wearing fatigues. Not long after, he wanted to be a soldier for Halloween.

“I can vividly remember watching the History Channel as a young kid and being star struck by the bravery of soldiers in combat,” said Donohue of his infatuation.

That theme continued for years, learning all the names of military tanks and airplanes and playing war games with elementary friends in the Steiner Ranch greenbelt.

“In the years leading up to high school, Brian and I had divided up our friends into rival factions of treehouse builders,” said Jack Elliott, a long-time good friend of Donohue. “We (spent) our time building bases and trying to take each other’s land. Tensions were high.” 

“By the time high school came around, we decided we’d be stronger as allies than enemies. So we signed a truce and the great greenbelt wars were over. We’ve been close friends ever since,” Elliot said.

Their relationship continued as comrades in popular online video games like Battlefield, Destiny and Minecraft, bonding them in ways their time at Vandegrift High School could never have. While Donohue was busy in athletics, Elliott’s energies were focused elsewhere – band and audio visual arts. 

“It was an excellent way to bond over a shared interest,” said Elliott. “We still had plenty of common ground thanks to the games we played together.” 

Ironically, Donohue’s expertise in video games circled back around. “For a time, he was in the top 20 of Battlefield 4 helicopter pilots in North America – out of a player base of millions! said Elliot. “Recently, he sent me a picture of himself standing next to the exact same helicopter in real life.

“Now that he’s an officer attending flight school, it makes perfect sense,” Elliot said.

A born leader

Going beyond his military interest, Donohue naturally enjoyed helping and leading others. His mother takes this back to participation in sports teams, first soccer then baseball and eventually swim. Donohue swam for the Steiner Stars and, later, all four years at Vandegrift.

“Starting team sports early in life is what really oriented him to what is best for the team,” said his mother, who witnessed his desire to do what’s right for others early in life.

“In my experience, Brian was always willing to be friends with anyone and would gravitate to positions of leadership, not out of a desire to command, but out of a natural tendency to support those around him,” said Elliott. Both he and Donohue joined the PALS program in high school to mentor small children, which Donohue enjoyed and that, Elliott explains, dispels the idea often portraying soldiers as “bulldogs.”

“Brian was always excited to help out and put in the extra effort to help make those experiences special.”

Donohue said of himself, “Being a born leader doesn’t make me a good leader. I am just extroverted enough to step up and take those positions.” 

A full ride

During his junior year – and while looking at universities – Donohue began seriously considering the ROTC program.

“Coming from a non-military childhood, ROTC was the approachable choice for me to enter the armed forces,” said Donohue. “The ability to go to college like all of my peers while training to be an officer made the deal too sweet to overlook. The Army offered the widest array of career paths, which was attractive for an 18-year-old trying to find one.”

Even more remarkable, Donohue applied for and received a four year Army scholarship. Not only was his entire education paid for, he could choose any university in the United States with an ROTC program.

“Giving a four year scholarship to a high school senior is akin to buying a car before you have driven it,” explains Donohue of the Army’s decision, which typically awards scholarships after people join the ROTC program. “It was a great honor, however it did put the pressure on to prove that I could perform.”

Donohue’s mom felt that pressure as well during the ROTC cadet contracting ceremony. “The scholarship is not something they just give away,” said his mom. “During the presentation, the officer said, ‘We look to these kids as our future.’ So they really saw a lot in Brian and he took that to heart.”

Donohue ended up at University of Oregon, which he had seen during a trip to the Pacific Northwest. “Stunned by the area’s beauty,” he looked forward to exploring the ocean and mountains only an hour away from school.

With an interest in medicine, Donohue entered school as a biology major. However, he realized early on that it wasn’t the best path, particularly if he was committed to serve in the military four years following college. Wanting his education to be relevant well after military service, he switched to a business degree. It wasn’t too far off the beaten path.

According to his mom, Donohue participated in a DECA event while in high school. DECA is an international program for high school and college students who wish to further their business skills.

Along with a partner, explained his mom, “Brian came up with a product – a business idea – and presented this idea over the course of time.” Donohue’s idea – creating a Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q franchise in Germany – led him all the way to the grand finale, the International Business Plan competition in Orlando. Though Donohue didn’t place, it was a valuable experience. 

In June of 2020, Donohue graduated with a degree in operations and business analytics. He completed his ROTC training at the same time and, along with other cadets, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Making the commissioning extra special, his grandfather Gerry Dreiling, a former Army pilot, pinned on Donohue’s bars. The foundation was set for his next steps.

“Our extensive leadership training was all in the goal of creating dynamic officers that could be molded into leaders in whichever branch they serve under,” said Donohue. “By constantly holding mock leadership positions and overcoming artificial challenges, ROTC has given me the confidence and tools to jump into any role asked of a Junior Officer.”

Moving forward

Following graduation, he reported to Fort Rucker in Alabama for the Basic Officer Leaders Course and Flight School. Ft. Rucker is the only Army base offering aviation, which specializes primarily in helicopter training.

While military service wasn’t emphasized in his family, training at Fort Rucker runs in the family. His mother’s father also trained there and served in the Army during the mid-1960’s, moving on afterward to become a commercial pilot with Delta. “He’s having the time of his life seeing his grandson follow in his footsteps,” said Donohue’s mother. 

Donohue finished the prerequisites to begin flight school this week on Thursday. One of those prerequisites was a three-week long SERE training. Survive, Evade, Resist and Escape is specialized training for primarily aviators and Special Forces, who are more likely to be stranded in hostile territory, according to Donohue. 

Given that his flight training is entirely paid for by the Army, Donohue is required to serve six years instead of the usual four most cadets commit to. The cost to train each helicopter pilot averages somewhere between $600,000 and one million dollars.

Of his service and potential for deployment internationally, Donohue takes it all in stride. “My future depends on the global situation and the unit’s schedule that I find myself in. Being ready to deploy is part of the job … we pray for peace but prepare for war.”

“I pride myself on knowing what’s going on around the world and being ready if need be,” he said.

As for family and friends, they feel reassured by Donohue’s choice. “It’s comforting to know he’s in a good place,” said his mother, who encouraged him to follow his strengths. When he’s had moments of doubt about his choice, his parents reassure him that he’s made the right decision.

Elliott, who has stayed in close contact in the years following high school, is equally supportive and has grown in respect for service members having observed Donohue’s training. He also looks to their video game playing as an unexpected tool to understanding the human element. The games brought in players from all over the globe, including China and Russia, opening doors for communication that young people in generations past were never exposed to.

“I would trust Brian to make the right call in a tough moral situation,” Elliot said. “Knowing that people like him are in the Army makes me feel better about often controversial directives of our military force around the world.”

“Brian has the compassion to see different sides but the decisiveness to act with intelligence,” he added.