Former Marine Excels Despite Disability


Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif. -- Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif., is the second largest employer in the Barstow area; that being said, the vast amount of employees makes for hundreds of unexpected and interesting stories.   For example, who would have known that MCLB Barstow is home to a former beauty queen, an acclaimed artist, a humane society hero, and now, a legally handicapped man who is also an elite mixed martial arts fighter?   MCLB Barstow personnel have more than likely seen him at the base gym or perhaps in the communications shop. His name is Juan Rivera and he is the information technology officer on base.   Rivera first came to MCLB Barstow as a military police officer with the Marine Corps in 1987, finishing out his first enlistment.

"I spent the majority of my time in the Marine Corps overseas," said the New York City native.

During his time in the Corps, Rivera was stationed in Japan and spent time in Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. It was there, when he wasn't performing his duties as a Marine, that Rivera picked up a hobby: training in the Japanese martial art of Aikido.

"I grew up during the martial arts craze," said Rivera. "Everyone wanted to be like Bruce Lee. I took up Aikido when I saw the opportunity."   Rivera was immediately hooked on the art that balances combative and meditative aspects, and began training regularly.

After completing his tour overseas, Rivera returned to the States and completed his contract with the Corps in Barstow.

"I got out of the Marine Corps in 1988," said Rivera. "Two days later I started working as a civil service employee on base."

As a civil service employee, Rivera performed various labor intensive duties around the base.

It was during this time Rivera had an accident at the base laundry mat, he said. His hand got caught in an extractor machine, a separate basket-type machine that spun water out of clothes with a constant high-speed power source. It pulled him in.

"My co-worker at the time pulled me out of the machine. I raised my arms and wiggled my fingers to make sure I was okay," he explained. "I felt my fingers wiggling but when I looked, my arm wasn't there. It was on the floor."   "I used my shirt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding until the corpsman arrived," he added.

The corpsman was not used to treating severed limbs and when he arrived and saw the arm on the floor and blood everywhere, he panicked, recalled Rivera.

"I actually had to tell the corpsman to calm down while I was lying there looking at my arm on the floor," Rivera said, looking back and laughing. "I told him that I needed him to do what he was trained to do to save my arm. And he did."   Soon Rivera was flown out to Barstow Community Hospital.

"I woke up in the hospital bed relieved to see my arm re-attached," he said.

Following the successful surgery, the doctor delivered mixed news to his patient. The good news was Rivera had his arm back on. The bad news: it was 70 percent infected and more than likely had to be amputated.   "You just put this thing back on," Rivera exclaimed! "You're not taking it back now."

Rivera spent several weeks in the hospital; but with a tenacious spirit and unparalleled stubbornness, he beat the infection and kept his arm.

With tissue from his thigh covering his inner elbow, doctors told Rivera he wouldn't be able to bend it more than 5 percent.

"They don't know me," he explained. "I told them, 'we'll see about that.'"   The doctors, unaware of Rivera's staunch determination and courageous resolve, had no idea who they were dealing with. While on workers' compensation, waiting to return to work, Rivera was eager to get back into the workforce and be productive.   He was then on workers' compensation while he waited to return to his job on base, he said.

"It didn't make sense to sit around and do nothing while I was recovering," he explained. "I decided to take some computer classes at the local community college."   After a while, the base called Rivera, offering him a secretarial position.

"I'm no secretary," he said. "I told them there must be something else and explained to them that I had been taking some computer courses."   When the base learned of Rivera's computer skills, he was offered a position as an office automation clerk. Rivera kept busy, fixing many computers and printers in various departments throughout the base.   "I started fixing the computers faster than (communications) could," Rivera explained.

As a result of his proficiency and aptitude for fixing computers, base personnel began calling him instead of the communications shop. When the communications department discovered he was fixing everyone's computer and a position became available in the hardware section, Rivera was interviewed and accepted the new challenge. Soon, Rivera moved to the networking section, where he saved the base $65,000 by employing wireless communication throughout the base, as opposed to running cable fiber optics for internet service.

The Fall of 2001 had just begun, and the horror of the September 11th attacks on the U.S. shook most everyone worldwide. It was no different for Rivera and the devastation that befell his hometown.

"September 11 hit me personally," he said. "I promised myself that I would do anything in my power to contribute to the effort in stopping terrorism. So, I engulfed myself in cybersecurity."   And engulfed he did.

Rivera now holds 14 certifications in the cybersecurity world. These include being a certified ethical hacker, a hacking forensic investigator, a certified computer examiner, and a certified information system security professional.   "I established cybersecurity for the Department of Homeland Security," explained Rivera. "I'm a plank owner (founding member of the organization)."   Coupled with work and school, Rivera continued his hobby with martial arts, and as his passion grew, trained in Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.   Because BJJ and Judo were so intense, Rivera said he needed something to mellow him out.   "I was constantly getting slammed and choked in Judo and Jiu Jitsu, so I started taking Aikido again like I did I Japan. Then I found out my Aikido instructor was also a Danzan Ryu Jujitsu instructor. So I took that too," he explained. "I was training in four different martial arts courses at the same time, and competing in two of them (BJJ and Judo)."   Although not being able to straighten his arm out all the way has made fighting difficult at times, it's only provided fuel for him to push himself to that next level.   "It's a challenge," Rivera said. "But I love challenges and it only motivates me to fight harder."   Rivera was right in proving the doctors wrong. Today he has 70 percent flexibility as opposed to only five.   "I worked extremely hard to gain flexibility. I think it was my Marine Corps determination that pushed me through. Today I'm even able to golf with a modified stance and am pretty good at it. Also, my arm allows me to be great at darts and I can't lose at arm wrestling because my arm can't bend," Rivera said.

"I even beat big Gunny Jackson, (Rob Jackson, public affairs officer on MCLB Barstow, retired master sergeant and former Marine Corps body builder)" Rivera laughed, recalling his victory. "That guy had arms the size of tree trunks. He couldn't figure out how a guy my size was able to win."   "People don't know I'm disabled because I don't act like I'm disabled, half the time I even forget that I am. I'm not going to let anything stop me," he added. "I am what I am."   Always looking for new challenges, the already adept professional accepted a new calling.

"I felt like I ran out of challenges until I discovered the base here had no cybersecurity. So I became the base cybersecurity manager and was happy to be giving back to the Marine Corps after everything it gave to me," explained Rivera.   Once settled into his new position, Rivera started looking for places to fight, and continue training in mixed martial arts. He came across World Boxing Gym. With the help of his brother, Jose Rivera, a heavy equipment mobile mechanic on the Yermo Annex of the base, he turned the other half of the boxing gym into an MMA gym. Today, both men, own 'Kahli Fighter' in Barstow.

The brothers started the shop to promote self defense throughout Barstow, Rivera said. Classes were originally taught for adult males, but has now branched out to youth and women MMA classes.

Captain Robin Lee, communication deputy director for the base is one of Rivera's students. Lee, along with his 14-year-old brother in-law regularly attend the classes.

"He fights just like he works. He's top notch."

Lee encourages other Marines to attend and take their fighting ability to the next level.

Rivera explained he would also like to see more 'jar heads' in his classes.   "I would encourage Marines to pursue anything that keeps them fit, mentally sound and challenges them," Rivera said. People never know when a situation will arise and they will need these skills to protect themselves or their family, he said.

Rivera continues to advance in martial arts however, does not compete like he used to.   "When you start competing, it's not for medals and trophies. For me, it was to overcome the fear and the challenge of fighting. No matter how many wins anyone has, every time you fight you're challenging yourself. That's why I'm here now, the challenge," he said.

"You put in all your work to get to the level where you can teach ... it's not about competing anymore, I want to instruct."   "That's why I really do it. For these kids," Rivera said.

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