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Published Thursday November 12th, 2009 at 12:37am

Original Article by Jo Colvin

It was the most heart-wrenching, agonizing decision Sheri Ocampo ever had to make. More than three decades later, it brought her an unexpected family, a sense of peace, and a love she thought was forever lost.

Paul Braun (standing) is pictured with his parents, Bernice and Bob Braun (far left and far right) and his biological parents, Sheri Ocampo and Keith Bear.

Above all, it made her discover the true heroes in her life.

Doing what's best

Now a resident of California, at 17 years old, Sheri discovered she was pregnant. Knowing that she couldn't provide for a child emotionally or financially, she did what she thought was best -- she arranged to give her baby up for adoption.

She gave birth to a boy on June 18, 1973. She held him close, hugged him and then tearfully said goodbye.

But she never, ever stopped thinking about him.

An idyllic childhood

Bob and Bernice Braun of Alexandria, residents of Fargo at the time, had four biological children -- three girls and one boy -- and they wanted a baby brother for their only son. Approaching 40, the couple chose to adopt.

On June 22, 1973, they got a call that a little boy was waiting for a home. In August, the family eagerly welcomed Paul Robert Braun into their home.

A closed adoption, the Brauns knew little about Paul's parents except for their ages and that his father was a Native American.

"We tried raising him as best we could to be familiar with his heritage," Bob said. "It was our goal to have him appreciate his heritage right from the start."

Paul was a healthy, happy little boy with a vivid imagination. He was dearly loved by his family and knew all along that he was adopted -- but never felt any different because of it.

"Having them as parents, I can't say enough good about them," Paul said of the Brauns. "I never focused on it [being adopted] and was very happy with the family I had."

The search

As he grew up, Paul's parents made it clear that they were supportive should he decide to seek out his biological parents. Preventing him from pursuing it too seriously was his concern that it might make Bob and Bernice feel like they weren't his parents.

"He wanted to make certain that we know we are Mom and Dad," Bernice said. "That is so sweet on his part."

About 10 years ago, the Brauns gave their son an interesting Christmas gift -- they paid the search fees to the adoption agency, should he ever wish to pursue the matter.

"We had done everything to encourage him, but we left it all in his hands," Bob said.

Paul, currently a resident of the Twin Cities, set the papers aside and "never had much of an interest" in finding his biological parents. Then his wise stepdaughter gave him some perspective. And so did war.

A member of the military police of the Minnesota National Guard, he was informed last November that he would be deployed to Iraq in April.

"My 7-year-old said, 'It sure would be nice for you to meet any family before you leave,' " Paul recalled. "I thought I would give it one more shot."

Keith Bear (center) performed a Native American ceremony at a family reunion that included his biological son, Paul (right) and Paul's adoptive father, Bob Braun (left).

He contacted the adoption agency, which informed him of the tribe to which his birth father belonged. He called the tribe and within 10 minutes he had the names of both of his parents.

"When you're driving down I-94, that's an interesting conversation to have," Paul said of hearing his birth parents' names for the first time, and how quickly it happened.

Knowing only his birth mother's maiden name and that she was from North Dakota, that evening he got out the phone book and started calling everyone by that name in the entire state.

On his second call, he found his mother's sister. She promised to contact her sister and give her the shocking news that the son she gave up for adoption was looking for her -- after 36 years.

In the meantime, Paul had a two-hour conversation with his birth father, Keith Bear. And two days later, November 13, 2008 he talked to Sheri Ocampo, the woman who brought him into the world.

Puzzle pieces

Sheri never regretted giving up her son for adoption, but she always felt a sense of immense loss. After his 18th birthday, she expected he might contact her. Then she held out hope on his 21st birthday. By his 30th birthday she lost all hope.

So when she got that phone call from her sister last November, she was in complete, yet ecstatic, shock. After taking a couple days to work up the courage, she finally called her son. They talked for several hours.

"It was hard to comprehend that the woman on the other end of the line is my birth mother," Paul recalled. "She wanted to know every detail. It was a good conversation."

"It was as if we each had half of a puzzle without a picture of the whole," Sheri said. "We spent a lot of time on the phone putting the puzzle together."

The meetings

With the blessings of his parents and his wife, LaDonna, Paul flew to California over Christmas to meet Sheri. On the way, he met Keith at the airport for about 20 minutes before he embarked on the next leg of his milestone journey -- meeting his birth mother.

At the airport in California, Sheri was tense and nervous, wondering what her son would think of her and what she would say to him. And Paul couldn't stop thinking about how he would greet his birth mother for the first time.

When he got off the plane, he headed in one direction when he heard someone yelling out his name. When he turned around, Sheri ran up to him, grabbed him and wouldn't let go.

"I wasn't sure how to greet him, but it was so natural to give him a huge hug," she said, recalling her tearful goodbye 36 years prior. "After all, a hug was the last thing I had given him the last time I saw him."

Three families unite

This past August while Paul was on a two-week leave from Iraq, a family reunion took place that brought together three families that had never met but were now connected forever -- the Brauns, the Ocampos and the Bears. And Paul was the pivot point.

At the reunion, Paul got to meet some of his siblings he never knew he had -- three on his birth mother's side and 10 on Keith's side.

"Growing up he was the baby of the family," Bernice said. "He said, 'wouldn't it be fun if I found out I was the oldest?' Now he has more siblings than he knows what to do with."

As many relatives as possible met in Fargo, North Dakota on August 12, and also the next day in Becker.

"It went off so well," Bob said of what he surmises could have been a difficult situation. "It was such a beautiful thing."

"The conversations flowed as if we had known each other for years and years," Paul agreed.

Keith, who hadn't seen Sheri since Paul was born, performed a Native American ceremony at the reunion, and he officially inducted his new-found son into the tribe -- dubbing him "Good Thunder Returning."

"We were all in tears with this impressive ceremony," Bob said. "We didn't want it to end. We couldn't have asked for anything more. Instead of grief and resentment, it was joy and happiness and delight in being together as a family."

"It was incredible to see everyone come together and relate as a family," Sheri agreed. "Our time in Fargo this summer was the best experience of my life."

Her heroes

Within a week after their reunion, Paul, Bernice and Bob read a Dear Abby column in the St. Cloud Times. It was about them. Sheri had written a letter when the column called for readers to share stories of everyday heroes.

Her letter expressed gratitude to whom she considers the many everyday heroes in her life -- her husband for accepting the son she gave up; Paul's wife, who "shared" him during the holidays and supported their meeting; and most of all, to the Brauns, for taking Paul into their home and their hearts, loving him and encouraging him.

"They saved me and my son. I owe them a debt that can never even be measured, let alone repaid," Sheri said.

"It has been one great blessing. We are grateful, grateful, grateful," Bob said, equally thankful for his new family. "The most satisfying to me is that she [Sheri] could come to a point of peace in her life, knowing that she made the right decision and that we did our level best to give [Paul] everything we could."

But to Sheri, the greatest hero of all is Paul -- police officer, volunteer firefighter, medic, soldier, father, brother.

And now, her son.

"I have been surrounded by heroes," Sheri concluded. "My heroes have joined together to enrich my life, and I can't begin to thank each and every one of them."