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Firefighter's widow finds peace, comfort in 'Be Better' bracelet

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 10:34 a.m. MDT

A wildfire burns homes in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013. An Arizona fire chief says the wildfire that killed 19 members of his crew near the town was moving fast and fueled by hot, dry conditions. The fire started with a lightning strike on Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski) (David Kadlubowski, ASSOCIATED PRESS) A wildfire burns homes in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013. An Arizona fire chief says the wildfire that killed 19 members of his crew near the town was moving fast and fueled by hot, dry conditions. The fire started with a lightning strike on Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski) (David Kadlubowski, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Editor's note: We originally reported that the bands were called "Be Good" bracelets. The Deseret News has since learned the family refers to them as "Be Better" bracelets. This story has been updated to reflect that.

PRESCOTT, ARIZ. — For Juliann Ashcraft, widow of Arizona firefighter Andrew Ashcraft, the longest week of her life came to a merciful end Saturday, when a message from her husband — and, perhaps, from God — presented itself in the form of a charred rubber bracelet.

“It has been a whirlwind of emotions,” the young mother of four said during a telephone interview Saturday night as her brother drove her home from a planning meeting for Tuesday’s public memorial service for her late husband and 18 other firefighters. The 19 men died June 30 when treacherous, shifting winds turned the relatively small wildfire they were fighting near Yarnell, Ariz., into America’s most devastating loss of firefighters since the tragedy of 9/11.

A wildfire burns homes in the Glenn Ilah area near Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013. An Arizona fire chief says the wildfire that killed 19 members of his crew near the town was moving fast and fueled by hot, dry conditions. The fire started with a lightning strike on Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski) (David Kadlubowski, ASSOCIATED PRESS) A wildfire burns homes in the Glenn Ilah area near Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013. An Arizona fire chief says the wildfire that killed 19 members of his crew near the town was moving fast and fueled by hot, dry conditions. The fire started with a lightning strike on Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski) (David Kadlubowski, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

There was tenderness and love in Juliann’s voice as she spoke, but it was also firm and strong and confident despite the fact — or, perhaps, because of — what she had just experienced. During the planning meeting officers returned personal effects to family members of the 19 firefighters. Or, at least, those that were recognizable enough to be salvaged after what the firefighters had been through.

“There weren’t a lot of things that came back intact,” she said. “The damage was pretty catastrophic. Everything was charred and melted — his pocket knife, his compass. They couldn’t even find his watch.”

But there was among Andrew’s personal effects a rubber wristband — formerly white, now yellowed and singed, but still wonderfully recognizable to Juliann.

“About six months ago Andrew was in charge of our family home evening,” she said, referring to a common practice among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to gather weekly as a family to strengthen faith and family bonds through scripture study, games, treats and prayer. “His lesson was aimed at our children (ages 6 and younger) about how we all need to be better so we can be together as a family forever. As part of the lesson he got us all these white rubber wristbands. He said they would remind us to be better, so we called them our ‘Be Better bracelets.’

“The kids and I wore ours for a few days, but then we took them off and only wore them once in a while,” she continued. “But Andrew promised me that he would wear his until it fell off his wrist — because it was so worn out — or until the day he died. To him, it was a symbol of his commitment to me and to our family and that it was forever. So he wore it all the time, and he told me he looked at it a lot. It reminded him of us, and it made him want to be a better man.”

Juliann said she had no expectation that Andrew’s “Be Better bracelet” would survive the fire. “It was just a cheap thing,” she said, “and it was made of rubber — not exactly fire resistant.”

But when she saw it among Andrew’s effects — one of only a handful of items to make it through the blaze intact — she said she was overwhelmed by what she called a “tender mercy.”

“It was a miracle that it survived the heat and flames,” she said. “I just see it as a tender mercy from Heavenly Father. Andrew made me a promise, and he kept it. And God wanted us to know that he kept it.”

“He was a good man,” Juliann said simply, powerfully. “A lot of us claim to be the things that we are only aspiring to be. We go through the motions, but it’s not really inside us. Andrew was just good. He wasn’t perfect — no one is. But he didn’t pretend to be good; he was good.”

Juliann should know. She and Andrew had known each other since middle school. Even then, she said, he was “a good guy — fun, handsome, popular. Everybody knew him and liked him.” She confesses to having a crush on him back then, even writing out her future name, “Juliann Ashcraft,” as a classroom doodle again and again. But there was a problem.

“He was just short,” she said. “I would try to set him up with my short friends.”

After they graduated together from Prescott High School in 2003, they stayed in touch. They even dated off and on. Not only did Andrew grow physically — he eventually hit 5-foot-11 — but she noticed how much he had grown in terms of depth and maturity.

“Andrew had great parents who raised him as a strong Christian and instilled a lot of good in him,” she said. That was evident when he joined a rock band after high school that was good enough to do a little touring. While on tour, the other band members would go and do the things that rock band members are stereotypically known for doing, but Andrew always declined. When band members asked why, he would say, “It’s just my personal choice.”

“So ‘Choice’ became his nickname,” Juliann said. “Everyone who knew him in those days called him ‘Choice’ because that’s what he was all about.”

In late 2005, when they were both back in Prescott for the holidays, they started dating again. By the end of February they were engaged, and they were married in Prescott in July 2006.

“I was raised in the LDS Church, and I had always been taught about temple marriage,” she said. “But that wasn’t really a focus in my life at that time. But after we were married and we started having children, it was a lot more important to me, and I told Andrew I wanted to go to the temple so I could have my family sealed to me.”

Andrew, who had been attending church regularly with Juliann, was concerned about her announcement. “It was something we didn’t share, and he didn’t like that,” she said. “So I just sort of tabled it. I didn’t bring it up again.”

LDS missionaries were frequent visitors to their home, and Andrew was also kind and welcoming. “But he was honest, perhaps to a fault sometimes,” Juliann said. “He would say, ‘Thanks for being here. I know this is your job to try to talk to me about your church. But I’m totally not interested.’ ”

That changed suddenly one night when some missionaries prevailed upon him to watch a video about Joseph Smith.

“Something clicked for him that night,” Juliann said. “I don’t know why, but everything just sort of fell into place for him. That night before going to bed he told me he wanted to be baptized. I didn’t really respond — I was afraid he didn’t mean it. But the next morning he said, ‘Yeah, I’m serious.’ ”

Since then, Andrew has been as active in the LDS Church as his job would allow. Together with their two oldest children, Ryder and Shiloh, they were sealed in the church’s Mesa Arizona Temple in 2009.

“Andrew cried more than anyone else in the room that day,” Juliann said.

The past four years have been a time of spiritual growth and development for the entire Ashcraft family, including the addition of two sons, Tate and Choice. The youngest was named for his father's nickname as well as for the fact that physical complications during Juliann's pregnancy prompted recommendations from physicians to terminate the pregnancy — a "choice" they just couldn't make.

“I don’t know why, but our faith has gotten much stronger in the past six months,” Juliann said. “Our whole family has been growing — but especially Andrew. He has become a leader on the crew, a leader at church, a leader in our home. He would lead us in family home evening and family prayer. He would come home and really throw himself into family activities even though I’m sure he wanted to nap because he has this really hard, physically demanding job.

"Andrew represented the church and our family well."

And now, she says, it is her turn to grow.

"This has been a hard, horrible, terrible thing, for our family and for all of the other families involved," she said. "But I've felt the comfort of other people's prayer for us, and I've been comforted by my faith as I've tried to focus on the bigger, more eternal perspective.

"I've always been a believer," she continued, "but this week, going through this, I've really had to come to terms with everything I've thought and believed. And now that Andrew is gone, I find that I don't think or hope or believe that I'll be with him again — I know that I will. Through this hard, hard time, I've felt my hope turning into belief and then turning into knowledge."

And as she prepares to say her final earthly goodbyes to her beloved Andrew this week — his funeral will be held at Tim's Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, Ariz., on Wednesday at 1 p.m. — she finds herself responding to one question over and over.

“People ask me, 'Were you always afraid this would happen?' " Juliann said. "And yes, the possibilities are always in the back of your mind. But I was never really afraid. Maybe I should have been. I just knew that he loved what he did. It’s who he was. And I didn’t want to live every day worried. So our family just prayed for him and loved him and enjoyed each other, every day we were together.”

Still, she understands how an event like this can trigger fearful feelings in the hearts and minds of countless others who send loved ones off to work every day as firefighters, police officers, military personnel and other high-risk jobs. To them she simply says, "Treasure every day."

"These men and women, all of them, are heroes," she continued. "I just keep thinking about how incredible they all are, the important work they do and how they do it for the well-being and benefit of others. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just humbled and honored that one of them chose to marry me."

The one they called "Choice."

Email: jwalker@desnews.com

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