FORT MILL — Not many people have two birthdays, but members of the United States Marine Corps are the exception.
Since Nov. 10, 1775, the ones known as “devil dogs” and “leathernecks” age twice a year. As Marines, Lance Corporal Francis “Frank” Hegel and Sergeant Jeffrey “Van” Van Slyke will turn 238-years-old, in Marine years.
After graduating from Fort Mill High School in 2006, the friends enlisted. With Veterans Day approaching Nov. 11, they both took the time to reflect on their time in the service. Just like any other profession, the memories were good and bad.
“I joined because I had always wanted to, I loved the thought of being part of something so much bigger than myself and being dedicated to a dedicated organization,” Hegel said. “I had always wanted to join the military, and with the war going on, I knew I could not not do it. I was a true believer in the cause.”
Hegel, now 25, was born in Puerto Rico, but was raised in South Carolina. After training, he was sent to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. He said it was like living in the Stone Age because his platoon stayed in a mud house with no power. His connection to home was almost non-existent, but during a deployment there’s not much time to think about being homesick.
“The first two weeks we saw pretty constant action,” Hegel said. “After that, contact was rare, it was mostly IEDs (improvised explosive devices) we had to worry about.”
Hegel has mixed emotions about his time in the Marine Corps and his second “birthday.” He had no plans to sugarcoat his story and make it sound like he was thrilled to go through what he experienced.
“To this day I still don’t feel like all of our time, effort, sweat and sacrifice was at all worth it,” Hegel said. s“I still deal with medical issues from the things that happened, and I consider myself lucky. I still can’t get over the fact that we never fought al-Qaida. As far as I knew, we were fighting the Taliban. They were just Afghans that didn’t want us in their country. That is a discontentment anyone can understand.”
One might think Hegel is bitter and unpatriotic, but that’s not the impression he wants anyone to have. He wants fellow Marines to know he loves them and has great memories of most of the people he served with. He said they are some of the best people he has ever met.
“‘Once a Marine, always a Marine,’ and the birthday both feel like they are talking about someone else,” Hegel said. “The guys who had a good time in the corps, who love to talk about it and remember it partly identify themselves by that experience.”
Hegel said it wasn’t until recently that he began taking some pride in being a Marine and the mutual gratitude he shares with certain people who are proud of him.
Another local Marine had a different experience, though some of his views are similar to Hegel’s.
Van Slyke, 25, is originally from Erie, Pa., but has been in South Carolina since he was 11. In the beginning, he wasn’t thinking the usual “God, Country, Corps,” he said. His faith, or lack of faith, had nothing to do with his decision.
“I joined because I personally needed it,” Van Slyke said. “I was on a dark path in life and this was the only way I thought I could fix it. It worked out in the end. I felt lost and I needed direction. I felt I could use some rewiring and thought this would make me happy.”
Van Slyke was deployed, but never saw combat. He was sent to Morocco for tank training in the desert. It included live fire and maneuvers. His unit was in charge of distributing the ammunition, including 5.56mm rounds, tank mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
“The most fun we had over there was being able to meet the Moroccan Army, who was guarding us while we were there,” Van Slyke said. “We played desert soccer and volleyball, talked with them, learned about their culture and they cooked traditional Moroccan food for us every night.”
Van Slyke, like Hegel, would never want to do it all again, but said he’ll always feel a connection to his fellow Marines.
“When it comes to the second birthday, it doesn’t really mean a lot to me personally,” Van Slyke said. “It is always a good time to sit with fellow Marines, drink and catch up, though.”
Both former Marines said their “second birthday” doesn’t make them to want to blow out any candles and celebrate because what’s done is done, and it’s time to move on.