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Petty Officer 1st Class David Macias.

Petty Officer 1st Class David Macias. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

Petty Officer 1st Class David Macias.

Petty Officer 1st Class David Macias. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

Petty Officer 1st Class David Macias discusses with Petty Officer 1st Class James Gibliant how to conduct a training exercise with a military working dog, Barit, at a ballfield in Rota, Spain.

Petty Officer 1st Class David Macias discusses with Petty Officer 1st Class James Gibliant how to conduct a training exercise with a military working dog, Barit, at a ballfield in Rota, Spain. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Nobody needs to tell Petty Officer 1st Class David Macias that it is easier to get into a gang than get out.

He remembers the beating he survived to leave the one he joined as a teen in El Paso, Texas.

The boys who pledged brotherhood to Segundo Barrio might not have been a hard-core bunch of delinquents, but Macias had to endure a barrage of fists and feet to leave the group where he once felt he belonged.

“I just woke up one day and said, ‘I can’t be with these guys,’ ” Macias said. “I need to do something with my life.”

More than 22 years later, Macias is far removed from the El Paso project.

He is now a master-at-arms, a Navy cop serving as the kennel master for Rota’s military working dog program.

His stint with a gang and his childhood experiences help him show teens and junior sailors the path to success can be achieved without breaking the rules.

Although he did not always grow up with the perfect male role model, he does his best to be one for not only his son and daughter but also for all of the next generation.

He serves or has served as a youth sports coach, a referee and a drill instructor for Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. This year, he was nominated for the base’s serviceperson of the year award.

He also has used his brush with gang life to convince youths to avoid joining one in the first place.

He doesn’t like to talk about his gang days. But if his story helps a kid think twice about joining one, Macias would not hesitate to share his past. He thinks he can make a difference.

“The one thing with kids is that you can always teach them and show them exactly what you want them to do,” he said. “If you have good intentions within your heart, you can develop them into good people.”

What Macias offers that some other adults don’t is credibility.

He knows the danger of gangs, what it is like to live without your father and how illegal drugs can tear apart a family and then bring it closer together.

Macias, now 36, joined Segundo Barrio when he was 13. He said the gang offered a sense of belonging he desired. Members lived in the Second Ward of a housing project in El Paso, near the Mexico border, and had one thing in common: their fathers couldn’t care less about them.

Macias was just 4 when his father left the house and never came back. He still does not know where his biological father is.

Although getting out of the gang would be painful, he said the shocking news of his stepfather’s drug trafficking is what steered him into law enforcement in the Navy.

Before his arrest, his stepfather was a workaholic who managed his small, family-owned grocery store. As larger, corporate-owned grocers took over mom-and-pop shops in El Paso, store business went down and his stepfather turned to the illegal drug trade to help pay for a boat, two houses and a 1967 Corvette.

He kept the illegal drug trafficking a secret until in 1991, when the truth caught up with him and destroyed what had been a comfortable upper middle-class life. Police seized nearly everything the family owned.

Macias couldn’t believe it. At the time, he was a seaman apprentice in the Navy. Suddenly, fighting crime and illegal drugs became a mission.

“My first decision was how can I contribute my part. The best way I could do it is look at the master-of-arms rate,” he said.

Later in his career, he got the job he wanted and became a military working-dog handler.

Six years after his stepfather’s arrest, he and his canine partner, Victor, made their first big drug bust.

While helping a state trooper during an arrest in Whidbey Island, Wash., in 1997, he and Victor found $25,000 worth of drugs stashed in an old beat-up truck. The stash was hidden in compartments welded inside the wheel wells.

Whenever Macias makes a drug bust, he thinks about his stepfather and the day he got arrested.

“Every time,” he said. “Not only about that day. But also it reminds me as far as my mom’s concern.… That period of time wasted her life.”

He credits his mother and grandfather for helping the family pull through the tough times. But his stepfather’s fall is partly what drives him to excel in his law enforcement career.

Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Wilson, a co-worker, said if Macias had one fault it would be that he pushes himself too hard.

“He’s tougher on himself,” Wilson said. “He’s somebody I would definitely like to have by my side on duty or off-duty.”

At 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, Macias is someone most people would want on their side. But while he has an intimidating NFL-sized frame, he is known more for making people laugh and pulling an occasional practical joke.

He enjoys talking about his days in Catholic school where he was a class clown, throwing water balloons at classroom windows and gluing locks.

“He’s really a fun guy,” Wilson said.

Macias, who has 14 years in the Navy, is thinking about making the military his career. He hopes to make chief petty officer this year. But even if he doesn’t, he can take solace in how far he has come, rising from the projects to master-at-arms.

“I bounced back and definitely made something of myself,” he said.

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