"Courage is contagious," whether on the battlefield or confronting a student bully.
That was the message to Depew Middle School students Thursday from a decorated Marine, who lost his right leg and arm while serving in Iraq.
Mark O'Brien, 29, of Marilla - a retired Marine corporal and Purple Heart recipient - wove together tales of his service and his years as a bully at Iroquois Central Middle and High schools.
Stressing that he was not proud of having been a bully, O'Brien said his behavior was prompted by his being bullied for having big ears when he was in fourth and fifth grades.
"They called me 'Radar' and 'Dumbo.' . I used to go home at night and push my ears down," said O'Brien, now a safety specialist and motivational speaker with Dival Safety & Supplies of Buffalo.
"By middle school, I started deflecting. I started picking on a kid who wasn't athletic that everyone was picking on. For 6Ĺ years we'd make that kid cry two to three times a week," he said. "I was too afraid to be picked on myself, so I bullied."
Finally, in his senior year, O'Brien and a friend "decided this was not the right thing to do."
"We invited to play golf with us . and I discovered he was super bright - I wasn't - that he applied himself, and I didn't." They formed a friendship, but lost touch after high school.
O'Brien enlisted with the Marines shortly after 9/11 and went off to "fight a bully" - Saddam Hussein. He was severely injured on Nov. 8, 2004, during a battle in Ramadi, after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade.
One of the first calls he received during 10 months of hospitalization and physical therapy came from the man he had bullied.
"Here was the kid, now a lawyer, who I had made fun of . who couldn't play sports, calling me," said O'Brien, who had been a baseball pitcher and football quarterback.
"Karma had caught up to me," said O'Brien. "It'll catch up to you someday.
"Initially I didn't make the right decision. Making the right decision is not always the easiest thing to do. I wish someone had stepped in and stopped me.
"If you see someone being bullied, say something, tell a teacher, the principal," said O'Brien, adding that speaking up takes courage - and "courage is contagious." Others will follow your example, he said.
O'Brien said: "If you're on Facebook and Twitter making fun of someone anonymously . this is a U.S. Marine telling you you're a coward.
"If you're the bully," he asked, "what gives you the right to pick on another person?"
Think of the consequences, he said. While not mentioning the name, O'Brien referred to the 2011 suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a freshman at Williamsville North High School, bullied for being gay.
Thursday's program was sponsored by the school's Parent Teacher Organization, which made a donation to the Wounded Warrior Project, said Principal Joseph D'Amato.
The Depew school district has numerous prevention and intervention programs to help students develop skills and strategies to stand up to bullying.
Joseph LiPuma, director of pupil personnel services, said those efforts have resulted in a recent 21 percent decrease in the number of reported bullying incidents and disciplinary actions.
For scheduling information and more details on O'Brien's program, call (800) 343-1354 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.