O'Byrne grew up in rural Pennsylvania on a property that had a stream running through it and hundreds of acres of woods out back where he and his friends could play war. Once they dug a bunker, another time they rigged a zip line up between trees. Most of those friends wound up joining the Army. When O'Byrne turned fourteen he and his father started fighting a lot, and O'Byrne immediately got into trouble at school. His grades plummeted and he began drinking and smoking pot and getting arrested. His father was a plumber who always kept the family well provided for, but there was tremendous turmoil at home a lot of drinking, a lot of physical combat and one night things got out of hand and O'Byrne's father shot him twice with a .22 rifle. From his hospital bed, O'Byrne told the police that his father had shot him in self-defense; that way he went to reform school for assault rather than his father going to prison for attempted murder. O'Byrne was sixteen.
A shop teacher named George started counseling him, and O'Byrne spent hours at George's wood shop carving things out of wood and talking. George got him turned around. O'Byrne started playing soccer. He got interested in Buddhism. He started getting good grades. After eight months he moved in with his grandparents and went back to high school. "I changed my whole entire life," O'Byrne told me. "I apologized to all the teachers I ever dissed. I apologized to kids I used to beat up. I apologized to everyone and I made a f***ing vow that I was never going to be like that again. People didn't even recognize me when I got home."
One afternoon, O'Byrne saw a National Guard recruiter at his high school and signed up. The unit was about to deploy to Iraq and O'Byrne realized he would be spending a year with a bunch of middle-aged men, so he managed to transfer into the regular Army. The Army wanted to make him a 67 Hotel a tank mechanic but he protested and wound up being classified as 11 Charlie. That's mortars. He didn't want to be a mortarman, though he wanted to be 11 Bravo. He wanted to be an infantryman. His drill sergeant finally relented after O'Byrne got into a barracks fight with someone the sergeant didn't like and broke the man's jaw. The sergeant was Latino and spoke English with such a strong accent that often his men had no idea what he was saying. One afternoon when they were filling out information packets, the sergeant started giving instructions that no one could understand.
"He'd be like, 'Take your motherf***er packet and put it in your motherf***er packet,'" O'Byrne said. "And we're all like, 'What the f*** is he talking about? What's a "motherf***er packet"? And then he starts pointing to things he's talking about: 'Take your motherf***er packet' which is a packet and put it in your motherf***er packet!' and he points to his pocket. Oh, okay! You put your packet in your pocket!"
O'Byrne wanted to go to Special Forces, and that meant passing a series of lower-level schools and selection courses. Airborne School was a joke; he passed SOPC 1 (Special Operations Preparation Course) with flying colors; got himself selected for Special Forces; tore through SOPC 2; and then was told he couldn't advance any further without combat experience. 'You can't replace combat with training,' a black E7 at Fort Bragg told him. 'You can't do it. You can't replace that f***ing experience. Get deployed, and if you want to come back, come back after that.'