CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa, Japan -- -- MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan – Chief Petty Officer Ophael J. Myrtil, a 17-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As an infant, Myrtil’s life took a devastating turn when he lost 24 family members, including his mother and brother, in a motor vehicle accident.
The incident prompted his father to move him and his sister to the United States, where he eventually joined the U.S. Navy and found another extension of family that he didn’t know he needed.
The tragedy occurred on a seemingly normal afternoon. Myrtil and more than 30 other family members loaded onto busses to attend a family reunion. The journey took them through underdeveloped mountainous roads and the family divided themselves into two different busses. Myrtil and his father boarded a separate bus than his mother and brother.
“The roads were really dangerous,” said Myrtil. “One of the bus drivers was under the influence, which wasn’t uncommon where I’m from. The bus overturned and everyone onboard died. My mother, brother and 22 other family members were just gone.”
The tragedy left his father to be the primary provider of the surviving family. Myrtil’s father left to work on a cruise ship six months after the accident to better provide for the family.
Myrtil and his sister were left in the care of their grandmother without being reunited with their father until he was six years old.
“I was outside playing with my sister,” he recalled. “When a black limousine pulled up and a woman in a white wedding dress got out with my dad. He told me the woman was my step-mom and that we were going to America to be with them. I didn’t really understand what was happening at the time.”
Reeling from the news of his upcoming departure, Myrtil and his sister had reservations about leaving their home.
“We were a little scared to leave,” said Myrtil. “I was kind of shocked -- everything changed so fast. But I was happy that I was going to be with my dad.”
While Ophael Sr. and his new bride made preparations for the children to come, Myrtil and his sister briefly traveled to Miami and were taken in by an extended family member. The pair were shortly sent to New York to be cared for by a different family member who was better prepared to care for them.
Myrtil’s father was finally ready for his children to come to their new home in Kansas City, Missouri. Still only six years old, Myrtil and his sister departed New York to be with their father that they had missed for so long.
“The culture was really different,” said Myrtil. “In Haiti there was no such thing as a small occasion. If you got a good grade there was probably going to be a party. I didn’t see that much in America with the other families.”
Although Myrtil’s father encouraged him to go to college, Myrtil had a growing interest in joining the U.S. military.
“My grandmother heard my dad was going to pay for my college and freaked out,” he said. “Haitian men make their own way, and my dad paying for school wasn’t an option to her. As the matriarchal leader in our family, she convinced my father to let me enlist in the military.”
Myrtil visited a Marine Corps recruiter with his friends. They quickly signed up, but Myrtil knew he wanted to do medical work, which wasn’t an option for Marines.
“I knew I wanted to go in the medical field or be a veterinarian,” he said. “So I decided to join the Navy as a corpsman.”
Now a husband, father of two and a full time leader to Sailors in Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 1, Myrtil is surrounded by people who respect and care for him.
“[Myrtil] is a great leader,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Tristan Reeb, the lead petty officer for the III Marine Expeditionary Force Tactical Medical Simulating Center. “Working with him showed us that we can push through any [adversity] together.”
As the lead chief petty officer, Myrtil is responsible for ensuring the nearly 500 Marines and Sailors in MWHS-1 are medically fit. Such a substantial role takes excessive amounts of planning and man-hours, but Myrtil makes a point to make time for the people who are important to him.
“Chief is like a father to us,” said Reeb, a subordinate of Myrtil. “He’s always there for his kids, but he’s also always there for me and my guys too.”
Myrtil intended to serve one enlistment in the Navy and return to civilian life but the brotherhood he found in the Navy has kept him in.
“My best friends always told me I would stay and here I am 17 years later—a chief,” said Myrtil. “The military is very much like a family.”