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Transforming disability into capability Wounded vet is vital link to law enforcers in harm's way

Mark P. O'Brien's dream of following his father and brother into law enforcement looked like it was over when a rocket-propelled grenade left him without his right arm and leg.

When the former Marine was able to return home after the 2004 attack in Iraq, he wondered what he would do with the rest of his life. He was certain of one thing: He did not want to sit around and feel sorry for himself.

So, adapting to his new circumstances, he modified his dream of going into law enforcement. He knew he could answer phones and type with one hand.

O'Brien also knew he cared deeply about police officers and wanted to be part of their world, so he set his sights on working as a police radio dispatcher.

Perseverance paid off, first with a job as part-time dispatcher for the East Aurora Police Department and more recently as a full-time radio dispatcher for the Erie County Sheriff's Office.

And if you think the 26-year-old Marilla resident has found himself just another boring desk job, think again.

"You have to know where everybody is and keep track of them. If they're out on a stop, you want to make sure they're OK. You check in every couple minutes," said O'Brien, who drives himself to work at the Public Safety Campus in downtown Buffalo.

He explained that certain police calls, such as auto accidents, fights and domestic incidents, can put deputies in harm's way in an instant.

"Any one of those are the hotter calls. Those are the ones you want to pay extra attention to," O'Brien said, adding that he loves the interaction with deputies.

Handling multiple calls simultaneously, especially on weekend shifts, he said, also makes him feel like he's part of the action.

"I only have one arm and leg, and from a safety standpoint, I obviously couldn't be a road deputy, though that's what I wanted ever since I could sit on my dad's knee," O'Brien said.

His father, Dave, is a retired deputy who still works part time as a Springville police officer, and his brother, Paul, a former county road deputy, now works as an East Aurora police officer.

O'Brien is quick to add that though he is disabled and can't become a patrol officer, he is not looking for sympathy.

When people tell him they are sorry for what happened to him in Iraq, he politely explains that his wounds were all part of going to war and that he willingly put aside his college education in criminal justice to serve his country after the 9/1 1 terrorist attacks.

"Everyone says I'm sorry for you, but I tell them I wasn't playing Monopoly over there. I was out there fighting a war, and that's what happens, and I don't want anyone to feel sorry me," said O'Brien, who was deployed to Iraq twice.

He prefers to focus on the positive, saying he is grateful to have full-time employment in a very difficult economy.

"It definitely beats sitting home," he said, recalling the many months he spent looking for full-time work.

"Out of the blue, some friends who are dispatchers with the Sheriff's Office called me and said there was an opening, and so I applied," O'Brien said. His position is funded through the state, which makes provisions for disabled individuals if they are qualified for a particular job.

He also thanked his boss, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, recalling how the sheriff was there for him and his family after he was wounded.

"The sheriff had done a lot for me, even before. Right when I was injured, he was over at the house a few times, and anything we needed, he made it happen," said O'Brien, who has a toddler son, Jack, with his wife, Michelle.

Howard says he hopes that someday technology will advance enough so O'Brien's prosthetic limbs will enable him to pass the physical requirements to become a deputy. But for now, the sheriff said, he's glad to have him as a dispatcher.

"He made a tremendous sacrifice for our nation, and I will never forget a quote he made after his injury -- that his biggest regret was that he would no longer be able to help his fellow Marines," Howard said.

"When I think of Mark, I think of a hero and a role model for everyone, but particularly for public servants."

As for O'Brien, he says dispatching isn't just a job, but a career that enables him to make a contribution for the good of the entire community.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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