Monticello • Eight months after their son died in Afghanistan, as they face their first Memorial Day without him, Randy and Laura Butler say they still have a lot to learn about sadness.

Yet in the months that have seemed to both creep and fly by, Randy Butler has managed to realize something: One secret to grieving is balancing the sorrow with the strength gained from each new day.

“There’s new strain, but the strain from yesterday, we rested from. The uplifting, the strength from that, it doesn’t go away. It stays,” he said. “So, with time, it’s how you survive it.”

They’ve also discovered the healing power of their memories of their determined seventh child, Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler.

“Reminisce,” Randy advises. “Reminisce, reminisce.”

Sitting inside Randy’s Auto, a small mom-and-pop dealership the Butlers run, Randy turned to his wife on a recent afternoon and asked, “Did you tell the story about the Relief Society lesson?”

It must have been Aaron’s junior or senior year in high school, Laura said, because he had the muscles that were winning him state championships in wrestling. The lesson that week for women in the Relief Society in his LDS ward, or congregation, was the atonement and the sacrifices Jesus made for humanity.

Aaron climbed on top of a table and the group of 30 women learned that for each 10 pushups he completed, one woman would get a cookie. This would go on until all 30 women had their snack.

At first, the women laughed and cheered for Aaron. After a few sets, Laura said, the women got it. They told Aaron he didn’t need to finish, but he didn’t even look at them.

Laura wept as she continued. “Everyone was crying and begging for him to stop. It was enough. But he had committed to do 300 pushups for every woman in that room,” she said. “And he was shaking. The whole table was shaking. He was sweating, of course. And he didn’t stop until he finished the last pushup.”

Since Aaron’s death, days before his 28th birthday, community members have retold the tale many times. It was just him: driven, confident, strong, selfless and stubborn.

‘You stood alone at the top’

Aaron dreamed of being the best of the best for as long as his parents can remember. That would mean joining the military, and, specifically, the U.S. Army Special Forces.

But first it meant winning in wrestling.

As a freshman at Monticello High School, short and barely 100 pounds, Aaron was pinned in his first match. But he went on to win the individual state championship for his weight class that year. And again his sophomore year.

In his junior season, he tore a hamstring a few weeks before finals. He rehabbed the injury at a motel swimming pool while his teammates practiced at school.

And he won a state championship again.

Asked if it’s possible for a hamstring to heal that quickly, his wrestling coach, Kent Adair, answered simply, “It did.”

Or at least Aaron said it did.

“We don’t know how much it hurt him,” Adair said. “If it had torn again, he would have still wrestled. He was just that kind of person.”

In his senior year, Aaron became the first Monticello student to win four state wrestling championships. A banner recognizing his winning streak hangs in the wrestling gym.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Monticello's Aaron Butler won the 2008 state title.

Since then, there’s been another four-time state champion at Monticello High — Cole Eldredge.

After Eldredge won his fourth championship, Aaron wrote a post for him on the team’s Facebook page.

“When the ref raised your hand, in that moment, you stood alone at the top,” Aaron wrote. “And in that moment, you honored all those who have gone before you, and inspired all those who are yet to come.

“And to that, I would add my thanks and respect. … Continue to inspire future wrestling by giving time and knowledge to the sport, because in wrestling, when kids know your achievements, they will watch you closely and hang on to your words, trying to crack your code for success.’

“Don’t fall short of that responsibility.”

The Monticello High School wrestling team dedicated last season to Aaron. They wore T-shirts honoring him and brought a banner in his memory to each match.

(Courtesy Monticello High School and Anna Fredericks) The state champion 2018 Monticello High School wrestling team poses for a photo in front of a banner they made to honor a former Monticello wrestler, Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler, who was killed in Afghanistan in August 2017.

His challenge to Eldredge was sewn into a banner that now, too, hangs in the wrestling gym, alongside a photo of Aaron in his combat fatigues, smiling.

This year, Monticello won the team state wrestling championship. The team also added another four-time individual state champion.

‘I’ll never forget that hug’

Aaron went through basic training after high school, then served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana. He worked in Africa for two years before returning to the military in 2014 for more training.

Two years later, he had joined the Utah National Guard 19th Special Forces Group and was training for his first overseas deployment. He graduated at the top of his class in January 2017.

His family last saw him three months later, when he unexpectedly got a 17-day leave in April before his deployment to Afghanistan.

The Butler family was enjoying its biannual camping trip at the White Wash Sand Dunes, near the Green River.

“He walks in and says, ‘Who wants to come blow something up?’” Laura remembered with a smile.

When Aaron left the family camp with his girlfriend, Alex Seagroves, Randy embraced him and was overcome with a feeling that once Aaron deployed, he wouldn’t come back.

“I’ll never forget that hug,” Randy said, his voiced strained with emotion. “And the feeling of, you know, not just, ‘Oh, I’m scared for him.’ It was way beyond that — but yet, what do you do?”

Once overseas, Aaron seemed to love his new job. In one telling letter to his parents, he wrote:

“No sleep for two weeks. MREs [Meals Ready to Eat] every day. No shower. It’s cold. It’s hot. It’s the best vacation I’ve ever had.”

He didn’t tell them about his first Purple Heart.

Weeks afterward, he did tell his fiancée about the shrapnel that struck his arm. It sobered her to the reality that Aaron could be hurt, Seagroves said.

“I talked to him every single day. He would tell me stories, but … how dangerous it was, I guess it didn’t compute,” she said, “because he just made it seem like it was another day, like a desk job.”

Aaron was spending weeks in the field, fighting Islamist extremists — a subsection of ISIS — alongside a troop of Afghan soldiers, according to the Utah National Guard. He helped clear ISIS fighters from the area and found the bodies the terrorist group left behind.

Later, Laura said, he would watch locals move back, plant their crops and remake their lives.

‘Just so that doorbell doesn’t ring’

On Aug. 16, Aaron and his team were clearing buildings in the Nangarhar Province when they walked into a trap.

A device exploded and propelled a tiny piece of the dirty bomb through the air, straight between two of Aaron’s ribs and into a ventricle in his heart.

Had his arm been down, the shrapnel would have hit it and stopped, his parents said they later learned. Had its trajectory adjusted a millimeter or so, it would have hit his rib. And stopped.

Aaron was bleeding internally. While his injury wasn’t visible, it was obvious something was wrong, officials later told his family. Medics covered his body with their own, as the other Green Berets, themselves injured, rushed to return fire.

He is the first Utahn killed in action since 2013.

That evening, Randy left work and checked the headlines. There were reports of an explosion and casualties in Nangarhar Province.

Laura called Seagroves, who was with Aaron’s brother, Nate. Seagroves was crying, knowing Aaron’s unit was in that exact area and unable to reach him. After she hung up, Laura turned to her husband.

“I told Randy by now, it was a little after 8 [p.m.], and I said, ‘Whew, just so that doorbell doesn’t ring.’ I actually said those words.

“And it wasn’t 10 minutes later, the doorbell rang.”

Days later, Seagroves had one last sign of Aaron’s trademark determination.

The two had quietly planned to elope to Mexico once he returned home from what was expected to be a six-month deployment. He’d proposed while overseas, and Seagroves bought her dress. It arrived a few days before Aaron was killed, and she sent him a picture of the bag. He asked to see her in it, but she told him no, that was bad luck.

(Courtesy Alex Seagroves) Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler poses for a picture with his fiancée, Alex Seagroves. Butler was killed in Afghanistan in August 2017, just three months before the couple planned to marry.

Before Aaron deployed, Seagroves sent him a picture of the ring she wanted, an elegant, low-profile silver band with inset diamonds. She later changed her mind. Since Aaron couldn’t wear a traditional ring (many soldiers don’t, to avoid injuries caused when rings catch on machinery), she wouldn’t either. They decided to each wear simple bands of silicone.

After a candlelight vigil for Aaron, Nate had Seagroves sit on the steps of her front porch. He said he knew she and his brother had planned to marry.

“And in the back of my mind,” Seagroves said, “I was like you have no idea. You have no idea how close we were.”

He did.

About a week before Aaron died, he had asked Nate to buy a ring so he would have it as soon as he got home.

Nate had it with him, tucked inside a smooth cherrywood box. Seagroves opened it — and saw the diamond ring she had chosen.

‘I’m just really proud’

On the way to the Monticello cemetery, tatters of old yellow ribbons remain tied to fence posts in Aaron’s memory. He is buried beneath an unobtrusive military-style headstone, facing the Abajo peaks he called “his” mountains.

In the city’s Veterans Memorial Park, his name is etched alongside the other military members from the county who were killed in uniform.

The months have given the Butlers and Aaron’s seven siblings some perspective. They’ve had time to think about the what ifs, and to put those thoughts to rest.

The Butlers believe Aaron was called to be a Green Beret and, in the same way, was called to be taken away.

He hadn’t been scheduled to be deployed so soon, but always the “door kicker,” had begged to go with an earlier group. The smallest difference in the shrapnel’s trajectory or his stance might have saved him.

Instead, officials told the family, “if there had been a trauma team and surgeon right there, they couldn’t have saved him,” Laura said.

If there’s any solace to be found in Aaron’s death, his parents said, it’s that their son was living the life he wanted.

“He knew what he was going to do and wanted to do,” Randy said. “As a father, I’m just really proud. … He had the courage, and that much passion, to do what he felt like he was supposed to do. He wouldn’t stop for the fear, for the stats of, ‘This is dangerous; these are your odds.’”

Laura has the same conviction.

“He wasn’t even supposed to be there,” she said. “But in the end we realized, yes, he was supposed to be there.”