As a kid, like many Marines, Mark O’Brien loved to trek through the woods near his home in upstate New York. He often hunted with his father and brother and his preferred choice of weapon: A hunting bow.
Then came Nov. 8, 2004, when then-Cpl. O’Brien was deployed in Ramadi with his rifle squad with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. An insurgent’s rocket-propelled grenade exploded the Humvee he was riding in, sending shrapnel through his body that severed his right arm and right leg and nearly killed him. His story was featured in the 2005 TV documentary, “Coming Home.”
Through his long recovery, through medical wards and physical therapy as he transitioned back to civilian life, O’Brien found that being a double amputee didn’t mean he was limited in what he could do. “I wanted to just get back into doing things that I loved,” says the 29-year-old married father of two boys who works and travels around the country as a motivational speaker.
And that included archery. So through trial and error, and with the help of his father, brother and prosthetist, O’Brien crafted a trigger mechanism with a strap around his bicep so he could shoot the bow using his prosthetic arm – and his teeth. “I wanted often to do it, for a long time. The first time out, it was so exhilarating,” he says of the first foray into the woods to hunt. “It was very surreal just to sit there. I ended up getting a deer that year. It was just so exciting.”
The prototypes that O’Brien has developed let him push, instead of pull, the bow in order to release the arrow. It’s a unique setup, for sure, but it works. While he often practices at the Double J Archery range near his home in Marilla, N.Y., a town so small it has only one red blinking light, he draws curious stares when practicing or competing at other ranges.
“Everybody kind of looks at you weird when I walk up with one arm, and then I start shooting,” he says. A keen focus on the mission – the target – is all he needs to shut out everything else. “I am usually the only guy there with one arm and one leg. I focus on what I want to do, and I just keep working on it. I don’t want to give up on it.”
All that practice has paid off. This spring, O’Brien will represent the Marine Corps at the 2012 Warrior Games, which will be held in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was selected to the team after winning gold during the All-Marine trials held at Camp Pendleton. “It’s good to get out and represent the Marine Corps and be a part of something,” he says.
“I just hope to kick the Army’s ass,” he adds, without hesitation. “I’m going to pretty much try to destroy the competition.”