CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- Cpl. Randy Rivera’s story reads like a movie script. It is a tale of poverty, sacrifice, drugs, violence and danger. From the crime-infested streets of Bronx, N.Y., to the archaic Puerto Rican countryside, Rivera has seen and lived what most couldn’t imagine.
Instead of settling into the expected role of a poor male raised in the slums, he found his way out of the violence and into the most storied and feared fighting force in the world.
Rivera was only three years old when his father moved back to Puerto Rico leaving Rivera as the man of the house. Rivera, his infant-brother Michael and his mother were left to fend for themselves.
Rivera said his earliest memories involve visiting church pantries for meals, and bouncing in and out of shelters. Yet the family never relied on government aide; Rivera’s mother maintained a full-time job as a single parent.
"We did whatever we had to do to get food or money," said Rivera. "That’s just how it was. Money was tight, so we all did what we could."
‘Doing what they could’ involved Rivera’s mother putting her personal ambitions on hold; she discontinued her college education and opted to put food on the table and keep a roof over her family’s head.
"She was always like that," said Rivera. "She always set herself aside and did whatever it took to make sure me and [Michael] had what we needed. We didn’t always have what we wanted, but we had what we needed."
Growing up with just the ‘needs’ and no ‘wants’ meant the boys walked through life with hand-me-downs and worn-out sneakers. Calling something new usually just meant it was less old. What the boys did manage to come by often went away just as quickly.
"I remember when my mom brought home a PlayStation from the shelter where she worked, it was the best feeling," said Rivera. "The PlayStation 2 was already out, but we still loved it."
Two months later, the boys sold the gaming system to help their mother pay bills and buy food.
"It was better than not eating; we went days without eating so we knew what it was like," said Rivera.
As Rivera matured, so did his problems. Instead of selling gaming systems to get food, he started getting caught up in the violence and gang lifestyle that prevails in the Bronx. He fought to defend himself and his brother, and routinely witnessed beatings, stabbings and shootouts.
"It’s sad to think about, but those things happen so much that they just become normal," he said. "It is completely normal to go home and have fewer friends because they either caught a felony or got killed."
One of his friends was stabbed 21 times for wearing the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time. Drive-by shootings were common and watching kids cook crack or finding people in the street with needles in their arms was normal. He was stabbed twice in street fights.
"But that happens all the time; that’s just how it goes," he said.
Although never fully indoctrinated into the ruthless gang culture contaminating the Bronx, Rivera was not able to avoid it completely. At age 17 he ended up in trouble and moved to Puerto Rico to live with his father. The slower pace of living in the rural countryside calmed Rivera, but a run-in with local authorities resulting from a car accident forced him to return to the states. This time, he moved in with his aunt in California who was an active-duty Marine.
While in California, his uncle, no longer married to Rivera’s aunt, began talking to Rivera about doing something with his life.
"He would ask me where I thought I would be in four years, how I was going to pay for school," said Rivera. "He said the military would give me credibility."
Although skeptical at first, Rivera finally gave in to the persuading of his uncle and joined the military for the benefits. His mother was not happy with the decision. That all changed the day she saw her son walk across the parade deck clad in a crisp uniform and shining new shoes.
"When I was 18 she told me she never thought I would live that long," he said. "Now I am a 22-year-old Marine taking care of myself. Of course she was proud of me."
Rivera, an intelligence analyst with Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 3, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), has never looked back. Now he helps pay his mother’s bills – she recently returned to college as a full-time student – and helps put his little brother through college. Rivera has not only made financial gains since joining, he says his entire attitude has changed, and he is much happier now than he was while living in New York.
"I had to eat a lot of humble pie when I joined," he said. "I was used to running my own life. Then, I had to get used to someone else telling me what to do, how to do it and when to do it. But it was worth it. I am mature, I have luxuries and it kept me alive and out of jail."
His maturity and improved attitude are not just self evident. Many of Rivera’s superiors believe him to be a stellar Marine and person.
"What stands out the most to me about Rivera is his willingness to give back," said Master Sgt. Michael Beauchamp, Aviation Logistics Department class desk chief with 3rd MAW (FWD). "He sees a long-term picture. This is a distinct quality not often seen in people so young."
Rivera’s story has many chapters remaining, but his circumstances have come full circle. Rivera from the Bronx has been reborn as Cpl. Rivera of the Corps, a successful brother, son and Marine.