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Rescued refugee becomes Coast Guard rescuer

By Ashley Strickland, CNN
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri May 18, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Haitian refugee Orlando Morel was rescued at age 6 by the Coast Guard
  • Now, Morel is a Coast Guard Academy graduate
  • Morel will be working in the waters around Haiti to rescue other refugees

(CNN) -- When Orlando Morel was just 6 years old, the Haitian refugee was starving, dehydrated and lost among the masses of a tightly packed boat, feeling completely alone although he was with his mother.

Morel was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard that day, 18 years ago.

Today, he can do the same for someone else. On Wednesday, the 24-year-old graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.

The ensign will be serving on a cutter out of Florida, helping to rescue Haitian refugees fleeing to the United States.

But his path to the Coast Guard was not an easy one. Morel still recalls how he felt that day.

"I remember being on the boat with my mom and being scared and alone," Morel said. "It was so crowded. The sheer capacity of it all was so overwhelming. We have no idea how long we were on that boat."

Morel was taken to Guantanamo Bay and separated from his mother, who was suffering from cancer in the Bethesda Naval Hospital, also known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Caretaker Louise Jackson knew Morel's mother was dying. Jackson, who was with the Navy at the time, was able to pull a few strings and reunite Morel, who was at Guantanamo Bay, with his mother before she died.

Jackson then became Morel's adoptive mother, and the two grew very close. To this day, he refers to her as "mom." Also from Haiti, Jackson was the one who motivated Morel's interest in joining the Coast Guard.

"She was the one that reminded me that the Coast Guard saved me," Morel said. "Because at [age] 6 and a half, I didn't really remember who rescued me."

During his sophomore year of high school, Jackson had Morel seriously considering joining the Coast Guard.

"I went to Eclipse Weekend, a weekend where minorities come and they see the Coast Guard, and that's when I truly fell in love with it. None of the research mattered, because I had experienced it firsthand."

Morel refers to his training for the Coast Guard as "brutal," but he says it with a smile. To give people an idea, he likens it to the "legit" training witnessed in the Coast Guard movie,"The Guardian."

"It is mentally challenging because even though you are going for academics, there is a lot of military aspect to it, and you also have to choose a sport."

Morel loves the Coast Guard because it specializes in saving lives, and as someone who went through a life-threatening experience, he can relate to the struggle.

Now, Morel will patrol the waters around Haiti on search-and-rescue missions, as well as drug and migrant interdiction missions.

"That means a lot to me because I can see where I was so many years ago, so I can empathize with them," he said. "They are trying so hard to escape Haiti, to come here. Even though we have to send them back, we are still rescuing them instead of leaving them out there to die, so I think that is what keeps me going and motivated."

But one thing that remains on Morel's wish list is finding the people who saved him all of those years ago and thanking them. He has tried in the past with no luck. His memories from age 6 can only recall a white boat -- a boat that gave him the gift of survival, so he can return the favor.

Do you know an incredible story like this, or have a loved one serving in the U.S. military? Share with us in the comments below, or upload your story on CNN iReport's Salute to troops!

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