WWI medals make spiritual journey home

vmannix@bradenton.comNovember 10, 2013 


The World War I medals belonging to Homer Ayler had traveled a great distance, their journey a roundabout one to his granddaughter's home on 17th Avenue West.

Earned during the bloody trench warfare in Europe 95 years ago, they'd been revered, robbed, recovered and returned at last.

Margo Betancourt tenderly held her deceased grandfather's Purple Heart with his name engraved on the back. His Citation Star -- the forerunner of the Silver Medal -- campaign ribbons and marksmanship medal lie on her dining room table.

They were precious to the married mother of two, who waitresses in Palmetto and studies wildlife conservation at State College of Florida. "After all these medals have gone through, we'd lost all hope we'd ever get them back," Betancourt said. "Grandpa was my hero."

Ayler became that as well to Shannon Headdress Fisher, a member of the Assiniboine tribe and social worker on the sprawling Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Wolf Point, Mont., 2,300 miles away. Her inspired role in a remarkable chain of events is almost transcendental.

"Divine intervention," Fisher said.

The 53-year-old women have spoken but never met, yet they share an undeniable bond.

"Shannon is so much a part of this," Betancourt said.

"It was meant to be," Fisher said.

After Homer Ayler died years ago in Brainerd, Minn., his daughter, Barbara, Betancourt's mother, remarried and moved to Wolf Point with her father's personal effects.

Then thieves struck in May 2012.

"They ransacked the house and took everything that wasn't nailed down including the medals," Betancourt said. "Of everything Mom had, that's what broke her heart. They meant the world to her. They're not worth anything monetarily, but they're priceless."

Especially to his granddaughter, the closest of seven grandchildren to Ayler. The theft meant the loss of sentimental touchstones that evoked childhood memories growing up in Brainerd, Minn.

• Helping Grandpa tend to his rhubarb garden.

• Being towed by Grandpa on a sled through the snow.

• Screaming and laughing when Grandpa would take out his dentures, wear a witch's wig and scare everyone at Halloween.

"When we went to Grandpa's house that meant we got to go down to the corner store and pick out what we wanted," Betancourt said. "But to walk with my Grandpa was my favorite part. It wasn't what I got at the store. It was being with my Grandpa. He was the most loving man ever."

A man who, like many veterans, never talked about a war that claimed more than 116,000 American lives.

According to family documents, Homer Ayler captured 20 German soldiers, shooting one fatally in the skirmish, and was wounded himself.

Conflicted by the killing, Ayler became a courier, riding a motorcycle through "No Man's Land," delivering communiqués, dangerous duty that got him wounded again.

Grandpa never told those stories.

But he did share light moments like the time a German soldier held up a sign, "Gott Mitt Uns!" (God with us).

Yankee doughboys responded with a sign that said, "We Got Mittens, Too."

"He was your quintessential grandpa -- wire rim glasses, crew cut, kind, sweet and very funny," Betancourt said.

Shannon Fisher sensed that when she came in contact with Ayler's medals.

One of the thieves had spotted the Vietnam veteran bumper sticker on her husband Larry's jeep and offered to sell the medals for $20.

"When I turned over the Purple Heart and saw the name, my heart went faint," she said. "I knew they were stolen. I said we needed to buy these medals and get them back to the rightful family."

Fisher began searching online, embarking on a mission that would take months.

She knew she was on the right path when she came across Ayler's obituary.

They share the same birth date, Nov. 13.

"It was a sign I would find the family," Fisher said.

Something else drove her, too.

A proud lineage harkening back to the 1700s, when the Assiniboine were 10,000 strong, fought and hunted buffalo on horseback across the northern great plains and whose dominion included Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, North Dakota and Montana.

• Her great grandfather was a scout for the U.S. Cavalry in the 1800s.

• Her grandfather also fought in World War I.

• Her father fought at Okinawa.

Their ghosts may have guided Fisher.

Ayler's too.

"I'm a spiritual person and for some reason I felt I was meant to get these medals," Fisher said. "I think because the Indian people honor their warriors, it was a way to honor my father, who never spoke of Okinawa. So to get these medals to the family of another warrior was important. I knew Homer wasn't at peace."

Fisher would run her hands over the medals and invoke his spirit.

"I'd say, 'OK, Homer. You've got to help me out here. I'm having a hard time finding your family,' " she said.

The breakthrough occurred when Fisher reached Betancourt's stepmother in Deerwood, Minn. She in turn left a message and Fisher's phone number with Betancourt.

It was October 2012.

"They said some lady called with a crazy story she might have your grandfather's war medals," Betancourt said. "So I called Shannon, identified myself and there was silence for a minute. Then she said, 'Oh, my God. I'm so glad. It's been an honor to care for your grandfather's medals until we could find you.' "

Betancourt's mother was elated, too, and told her daughter to keep the medals. When they arrived here via priority mail, it was almost too good to be true.

"I was so nervous, so excited," Betancourt said. "When I took them out they even smelled like Grandpa. I can't thank Shannon enough. It's a true testament to her love of a soldier. She developed a relationship with my grandfather."

A relationship Fisher treasures as much as those she cherishes with her heroic ancestors.

"Homer is at peace," she said. "I can feel it."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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