When Francis Hegel graduated from Fort Mill High School in 2006, little did he know that only a few years later he'd be helping provide humanitarian aid to survivors of last November's cyclone in Bangladesh.
As part of Operation Sea Angel II, Hegel, 20, was one of the 2,200 Marines and sailors from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit on board the aircraft carrier USS Tarawa who provided assistance to thousands of wounded and displaced people in Bangladesh. In total, the operation provided over 38,500 pounds of food and 1,875 gallons of water.
"I was attached to the ship, on the flight deck directing people and cargo onto the birds," Hegel says. "The vast majority of what I saw was medical supplies for the injured."
Hegel, a lance corporal in the Mar-ines, has seen quite a bit since graduating high school and immediately enlisting in 2006. After training, he became part of the 11th MEU stationed at Camp Pendleton in California in January 2007. His unit trained for nine months for an extended deployment aboard the Tarawa which began on November 5, 2007 and just recently returned after a seven month voyage. Along the way, his ship stopped at ports in Singapore, Bahrain, Kuwait, Africa, Dubai, Australia, India and Hawaii. During some of these stops, his unit engaged in training exercises.
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"We stopped in Kuwait and did some training out there, some infantry tactics. Then down off the coast of Africa, we did some training there as well," Hegel says. "Most of the ports, though, were just a stop to get liberty and the chance to see different cultures."
Exploring the world has been something Hegel has wanted to do since he was a child and says he always knew he'd join the Marines. In fact, his father Kevin Hegel, now retired from the Charlotte police department, remembers the exact day when his son became interested in joining the armed services.
"He wanted to join ever since he was 6 years old, when we watched the movie 'Sands of Iwo Jima,' the one with John Wayne," his father says of the classic 1949 film. Now that Francis has traveled to the Persian Gulf and trained in far-off locales, he says it's been a good experience for his son. "I think it's kind of exciting. He started out at 19, and turned 20 while he was over there, and he's had the chance to see many different cultures."
Already halfway through his four-year enlistment, Hegel plans on finishing his commitment, before using his G.I. Bill to go to college. And while he hopes to one day get a job in law enforcement, he says joining the Marines has been an extremely important part of his life. He credits his newfound self-confidence from being a Marine.
"After life in the Marine Corps, I don't see the civilian world throwing a whole lot at me that I can't handle," he says.
Mostly called Francis, although some call him Frankie, he was born in Charlotte and grew up in Fort Mill. And while he may be the first Marine in his family, he's not the first to enlist in the armed services. He has an uncle and two cousins in the Air Force and a grandfather in the Army Reserves. His mother Darlene, on the other hand, is a Spanish lecturer at Winthrop University, and he has a younger sister, Kristen, who plans on attending Fort Mill High School.
During his leave, Hegel met up with old friends and visiting his favorite hangout, the Waffle House on Cherry Road in Rock Hill.
Hegel's leave ended July 10 and he went back to his unit in California to await his next deployment. When asked what he'll miss the most from Fort Mill, he says, "everything."
"I'll miss the green, the trees," he says. "Coming back and seeing that was great. I'll even miss the humidity. That's something I'll really miss."