Juliann Ashcraft and her husband Andrew were twenty-somethings with four young children when he died in the line of duty in Prescott, Arizona on June 30, 2013. In fact, he was one of 19 wildland firefighters who died in the line of duty that day, with just one member of the crew surviving. Overwhelmed with gratitude for the strangers who sent letters and cards and offered support, Ashcraft converted a 40-foot Greyhound bus into a home on wheels and hit the road with her kids on a gratitude tour that would take them across the United States. Juliann wrote about the tour on a blog, and in this episode she talks about how she’s always used her writing to process her thoughts and feelings. She also describes how she recently added the word “gift” to her personal definition of the word “grief”—for without her experience of losing Andrew, she would not be who she is today.
Syri Harris and her future husband Walter met in elementary school. Years later, when Walter died in the line of duty fighting an intentionally set house fire in Detroit, his young wife and co-parent became a single mom of six boys overnight. As Syri dealt with this immeasurable tragedy, the resulting arson trial thrust her—and her children—directly into the public eye, shining an unwelcome spotlight on their very private pain. In Episode 4, Syri talks about how she moved beyond outsiders’ expectation for her to be the “ideal” firefighter widow—and closed her circle as the protective “mama bear” when being the perfect public face no longer served her. Syri shares how she and her family navigated the public and private aspects of their grief journey and honored the dreams they shared with Walter, even after he was gone.
Carol Jones had sought a challenging career that would fulfill her desire to help others, make a difference in her community, and to be a part of something extraordinary. She found that path when she followed in her own father’s footsteps to become a career firefighter in Fort Worth, Texas. Over a decade later, she married Fire Chief Louis Jones of Roswell, New Mexico—only to lose him four years later in a tragic event when he was shot and killed in the line of duty. After NFFF honored her husband during National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, Carol decided to “pay it forward” by escorting other families during the annual event that honors the fallen, which she does continue each year. She also provides peer support and promotes NFFF’s goals at various events. After tragedy, Carol has found great satisfaction assisting others in their time of need.
Ryan Woitalewicz was just four years old when he lost his dad Kenny, a volunteer firefighter in Nebraska. When Ryan attended his first NFFF Kids Camp for children ages 7-17, Illinois Fire Chief Chad Hoefle was assigned as his Big Buddy—a mentorship match that has stood the test of time. Over the years, Ryan and Chad returned to camp together until Ryan reached age 18. And the “found family” they created continues, as the two celebrate milestone events such as Ryan completing his education and becoming a teacher. They remain in close contact and enjoy any opportunity to talk about Ryan’s father and finding meaning in his loss.
Sharon Purdy’s husband, Lee, died of a heart attack in the line of duty. Sharon was at the fire and actually ran the code on her husband. She used her experience with loss to advocate for other survivors and Fire Hero families. As a result of her and others’ efforts, the Hometown Heroes program expanded in 2003 to provide benefits to survivors of public safety officers who suffer fatal heart attacks or strokes in the line of duty.