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NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Orlando Morel was 6 years old when he and his mother left Haiti on a crowded small wooden boat destined for America. Now 24, Morel remembers the blue of the ocean everywhere. And the hunger.
When a piece of bread fell into the water, Morel quickly scooped it up. "I will never forget that taste," he said, recalling the salty, soggy bread.
Nor will he forget when the Coast Guard showed up in a white boat and rescued him, his mother and other passengers.
Eternally grateful, the rescue led Morel to join the Coast Guard, and on Wednesday he will graduate from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. He will serve on a cutter out of Florida whose mission will include migrant interdiction in the very waters where Morel was rescued nearly two decades ago.
"I can put myself in their shoes," said Morel, who can still speak Creole.
He says he would probably be dead had the Coast Guard not found him and his fellow migrants, who were lost and out of food. So, he's excited at the prospect of saving lives, just as his was saved.
"I don't think that anything I can do will be enough as payback," Morel said.
Tony McDade, chief of Morel's company at the academy, said Morel was a "phenomenal cadet" who helped other cadets succeed. He said Morel will bring empathy to the service because of his childhood experience.
"When he told me his story, I thought, wow, this is like something out of a Hollywood movie," McDade said. "It's not something he advertises. He's very humble about it."
After the rescue, Morel wound up being sent to Cuba. His mother was taken to a hospital in the United States because she had cancer and burns on her hands.
"I was confused, I was scared," Morel said. "Not being with my mom made me even more scared."
Morel was reunited with his mother at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. He visited her several times before she died shortly after his birthday.
"I wanted to cry, but I remember I just couldn't cry," Morel said. "I think it was like shock. We've been through a lot."
His mother told him that her translator, a Haitian woman serving in the U.S. Navy, would take care of him. That woman, a single mother named Louise Jackson, wound up adopting him.
"She's just a remarkable lady," Morel said. "She knew it was going to be hard and she went ahead and did it. I pretty much owe her my life."
Jackson, who lives in Rockville, Md., said when she told Morel his mother had died, he replied, "Is this time for good? I'm never going to see her anymore."
Jackson said it was too sad to let Morel be sent back to Haiti.
"He had no family whatsoever here," Jackson said.
Jackson, who is now battling cancer herself, said she's thrilled that her son is graduating from the Coast Guard Academy and predicted he will do well in service.
"To me that's a beautiful American story," Jackson said. "It can only happen in America."
Morel laughed as he recalled his adopted mother's tough rules about studying and not staying out or drinking. "She whipped me into shape quick," he said.
She got him involved in church and swimming and reminded him as he got older that it was the Coast Guard that saved him as a boy. Morel began to look into the guard in high school and was quickly sold on a service dedicated to saving lives.
"I just fell in love with the Coast Guard," Morel said.
Serving off the Florida coast will bring into contact with migrants fleeing poverty and trying to restart their lives in America. Many, however, will be sent back to their home countries.
He acknowledges having mixed feelings about that, but he says it has to be done because there must be a policy to regulate how many people come into the United States.
"What I tell myself is I was given an opportunity and my life was saved by the Coast Guard," Morel said. "I feel it's better to be alive and shipping back to Haiti than being abandoned out at sea and pretty much starving to death or dying of dehydration."