LITHIA — Until recently, Bob Unger wasn't sure he would ever shoot again.
A horseback riding accident last year left him a quadriplegic. Holding a rifle, let alone using his trigger finger, seemed out of the question.
On Saturday, he proved his injuries wouldn't hold him back.
A former Marine and Hillsborough County sheriff's master sergeant, Unger used a rifle to shoot down six targets at a range of 50 yards — using just his mouth.
Unger was part of the Military Heroes Top Shot shooting competition hosted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and held at the Walter C. Heinrich Practical Training site in Lithia. The event allowed 20 wounded and disabled veterans to return to a hobby they thought they had lost.
"For some of them, the last time they shot may have been when they were shot," said Mark VanTrees, a volunteer helping at the event. "This event allows them to learn to shoot and be active again."
At the event organized by Black Dagger Military Hunt Club and the Rolling Thunder Florida Chapter 11, veterans were supplied with adapted weapons and gear to fit their needs. The veterans' disabilities ranged from PTSD to paralysis; some had prosthetic limbs and others used wheelchairs.
Specially rigged equipment allows Unger, 58, to use his mouth to control his aim and bullets. Metal rods hold the gun in place and tubes connected to the rifle lead up to his mouth.
"It's phenomenal," Unger said. "Shooting was always part of my life and I hadn't been able to do it since."
For Ty Edwards, the return to shooting has been hard yet rewarding. Edwards, 42, of Tampa was shot in the head in 2008 while serving as a lieutenant colonel with the Marines in Afghanistan. He lost use of his legs and an arm. He has enough movement in one hand to hold and fire a gun but he still needs help. "I've only got use of one arm, and that's not the way I was trained," he said. "But you got to do what you've got to do."
The veterans were assisted by numerous volunteers as well as two contestants from the reality television show Top Shot, which airs on the History Channel. The cable channel helped sponsor the event.
Eric Anderson was a contestant from the show's second season. He traveled from his home in Webster to help out. "These are our guys right here," Anderson said of the veterans. "Whenever they need help, we do it."
The hobby of shooting is alluring to wounded and disabled veterans, he said, because they are already good marksmen and it is a no-nonsense sport.
"Want to know how you are doing?" he said. "The answer is right there, down range. It is what it is."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.