AL ASAD, Iraq -- From Brooklyn to the sandstorms of Iraq, one Marine knows that the choice he made, just a short time ago, may have been the difference between life or death.
Lance Cpl. Mike A. Rivera, current operations clerk, Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 3, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, was once involved with a notorious nationwide gang and was headed for a life that people only see in the movies, but with the help of his family and friends, this now motivated Marine is headed for a greater life.
"I got involved with the gang when I was 17," said the Staten Island, N.Y. native. "I was in it for three years."
When he first got into the gang, it was supposed to be about unity and religion, but in due time, the corruption of drugs and money transformed it from a religious organization into a ruthless gang.
Rivera hesitated for a moment and recalled in a somber tone, "A good man once said to me, 'Hey Mike, I understand you want to be a man and that's fine, but how can you be a man when you have another man tell you what to do?'
"About a week later, one of the members of our gang had his heart in the right place, but made a wrong decision and paid dearly for it," said Rivera regretfully. "This man did some things that he did not have permission to do, and we were ordered to hurt him in front of everybody." The last time I saw him, he was being held over the side of a bridge by one foot. They told us to walk away."
"Right then and there, I knew that if I made a mistake and they didn't see it was just a mistake, I could be killed," said Rivera. "This isn't the lifestyle I wanted to live. I wanted to have kids someday. As a father, would I want to bring my children into this type of environment?"
Around this same time, Rivera was getting involved with a dance group called Keep Rising to the Top. His ex-girlfriend was a member of this group and had introduced him to it.
"I have always loved to dance," boasted Rivera. "Dancing is a large part of my Hispanic heritage and culture."
After several lessons with the group, Rivera was approached by Violeta Galagarza, his dance choreographer, about some beads that he was wearing. They were a known gang sign and she voiced her concern.
Galagarza told Rivera that unless he got out of the gang, he would have to stop dancing for them. This, along with his girlfriend's parents saying that he couldn't date their daughter if he was with the gang, finally gave him the direction he needed.
"I loved her and I loved to dance, so I had to make a choice," he said. "But I knew getting out wasn't going to be easy. I was stuck, because I knew if I tried it, it could result in death."
When the gang heard the news of Rivera trying to get out, they began looking for him at school and around the neighborhoods.
"They didn't come near my home," he said. "They had a rival with another gang there, but the fact that they knew where I lived scared me."
Galagarza's fiancé at the time knew that he could help. He was a former member of the same gang and was still in contact with some of the older members. He and Galagarza went to them for a favor. A successful meeting with the gang members allowed Rivera out of the lifestyle without being harmed.
Rivera's mother put in for a transfer at her job. He eventually switched schools when they moved out of Brooklyn with his two younger sisters.
Rivera fell behind in his studies after moving to Staten Island and knew, even when he did graduate, he couldn't afford college.
During a trip to the Intrepid Museum in New York, Rivera spoke with a Marine about joining the Corps and how it could change his life.
"He sprinkled the magic powder that made me want to join the Corps," Rivera explained.
This made sense to him considering members of his family have been in every branch of the military. His grandfather and great-grandfather both served in the Marine Corps, so he followed in their path.
Now stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Rivera is deployed with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing to Al Asad.
"He is locked on," said Lt. Col. Philippe D. Rogers, operations officer, MWHS-3. "He knows his job and is always learning more. He constantly looks for ways to improve himself."
Rivera is scheduled to be deployed for one year, and when he gets back, he wants to be a drill instructor.
"I give 100 percent at everything I do in the Corps," said Rivera. "I am a highly motivated person, and I have plans to re-enlist when my first four years are up."
Although Rivera has only been in the Corps for a short time, he has left a growing impact on the Marines that he works with everyday.
"Rivera is really outgoing and motivated," said Pfc. Leah C. Perry, operations clerk, MWHS-3. "He loves to get stuff done. Everything he does has to be accomplished on time."
Recently promoted to lance corporal, Rivera has started his climb in the military ranks. He has also been presented with a safety award for his accomplishments as the MWHS-3 safety noncommissioned officer-in-charge.
Without the help of family and friends, Rivera would never have had the chance to excel in the Corps.
"The majority of people that get involved in gangs don't have the support at home that I had," said Rivera. "Without the help of everyone, I would be dead or in jail by now."
"I expect Rivera to be very successful no matter what career he chooses. The Marine Corps has given him the opportunity to escape the past as well as giving him the tools to become a leader and succeed wherever he goes," said Rogers. "I came in the Marine Corps to lead Marines like Rivera. He is the perfect example of what the Corps is and what leading Marines is all about."