- Ken Perrotte
Retired Marine Continues to Serve; Today, He's 'Semper Fi' Teaching and Helping Youth Archers
The passage of 53 years had little effect on the delight betrayed by the eyes and smiles of both teacher and student. Indeed, it may have amplified the moment. Roger Summers was a surprise guest as he joined the group of young archers readying their equipment at a weekly practice session of the King George Arrow Splitters 4-H shooting club. Summers walked over to retired Marine Corps Capt. Tom Breese, an Arrow Splitters coach. He smiled and said, “Remember me?”
Summers, age 67, was carrying an old recurve bow he bought from a Herter’s catalog in one hand and a still shiny trophy in the other. He told Breese, “You gave this to me. You were Sergeant Breese then.”
Breese, a young Marine in 1966, back from a combat tour in Vietnam and stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, was an enthusiastic bowman. He and his sergeant major began shooting with the Lunga Archers, so named after the large reservoir on Quantico. “A number of youngsters were also shooting there at that time and that’s where I developed an interest in coaching,” Breese explained. “We had a lot of fun.”
Summers’ brief visit brought back “flooding memories,” Breese said. “Roger, as I recall, was a really good kid.”
Breese said the moment reinforced on of his philosophies. “You never know what kind of an impact you make until later on,” Breese said. “It’s great to see guys like Roger who remember and grew up with the ethic that this sport brings. It (archery) teaches life lessons.”
Today, Summers' grandson Mason is among the youngsters flinging arrows at Breese's "Lost Turtle Farm." He often ferries the boy to and from practice, relishing the passing along of traditions and passions and the opportunity to still be able to listen to his old mentor coach the children of today.
Breese, now 78, was born near Elmira, New York, not far from the Pennsylvania border, growing up in a family with four siblings. He and four other young men from his high school joined the Marine Corps in 1960 under the buddy system. Just 17 years old, he entered under the delayed enlistment plan.
His first assignment was to the Marine Barracks at Yorktown, Virginia. “That’s the first time I laid eyes on Virginia,” he said. He then deployed to Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis, In Vietnam, he was an “S-2 scout” in an intelligence section. “My claim to fame was I could read maps, aerial photos and build terrain models.
He fondly recalls senior noncommissioned officers who mentored him and encouraged his progression. “Our sergeant major was a guy named Puckett and he sent me to every school he could think of,” Breese said.
His love of bows and arrows began as a preteen boy.
“I had a friend named Eugene Campbell who was interested in archery. He had one of those old Shakespeare glass bows and a handful of dinged-up wooden arrows. We would travel with his dad to different places to shoot archery and Eugene and I would share the bow. That’s really how I got started,” Breese said.
Military duty caused starts and stops to his archery career. A second Vietnam tour intervened. Then, in 1969, when he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina, he met Bob Mellon, a dedicated, competitive archer.
“Bob and I started shooting together, traveling up and down the East Coast on weekends for tournaments. I was shooting an old Ben Pearson Pinto,” Breese said.
The two had considerable success in regional tournaments. Marine Corps headquarters heard about their archery exploits and decided to sponsor them as a team in the national championships, staged at Cobo Hall in Detroit. There, he laughs, they were both severely humbled. “By the end of the first day, I think I had about 1,000 people ahead of me. We finished somewhere in the top 500, but it was a wonderful experience. The people there helped a lot, we learned a great deal,” Breese said.
Birth of Belvoir Bowhunters
A third Vietnam tour followed by the pressures of assignments in New York and then a company command, again, curtailed his shooting. It wasn’t until he retired from the Marines in 1984 that his brother-in-law Ronny Shelton, encouraged him to get back into archery. They began hunting together and along with 23 other archers formed The Belvoir Bowhunters, still one of largest, most vibrant archery groups in Virginia, if not the nation.
Breese said he worked alongside other Belvoir Bowhunters for “a good twenty years” coaching hundreds of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. “That’s where I really learned the coaching craft,” he said, adding he went to a couple schools to become a certified instructor by the National Field Archery Association and USA Archery.
Breese began his career in the enlisted ranks and retired at the rank of captain. Like many military retirees, he began a second career, first as a plumber and then as a Fairfax County deputy sheriff. Upon retiring from Fairfax in 2003, he and his wife Sandy moved to King George County, settling on a 40-acre farm that offered a long-range view of the Rappahannock River.
“My interest when coming here was improving the habitat for the wildlife,” he said. He began thinning timber and replacing plant and tree species that weren’t beneficial to wildlife with species native to Virginia, such as Washington hawthorn, bald cypress and a variety of native oaks. He also created wildlife openings, planting native, warm-season grasses.
Today, the property abounds with the sights and sounds of a variety of birds and wildlife, among them the beautiful call of the bobwhite quail. “I’ve got at least two coveys of quail that live here,” he said with satisfaction.
Duty Calls, Again
Breese was reading a local weekly newspaper several years ago when he saw an article about the formation of a fledging 4-H archery club in King George. “I met with Todd Mrotek, who was running the club then. They were shooting at an indoor horse arena. That very evening, I began working on some of the kids’ equipment because it was a little out of shape,” Breese said.
The retired Marine went gung ho for the King George Arrow Splitters. He sought a grant through the National Rifle Association that help set up a portion of his farm as a range where the club could shoot. The range has top-quality backstops and targets, including 3-D targets. The money has also let the club purchase some personal equipment for the archers. He still helps maintain many of the youngsters’ gear, tweaking bows and repairing arrows.
“All of that would not have been possible without the NRA,” Breese said. “Local businesses have been willing to help short term, but the NRA grants have been a real Godsend.”
He has worked with King George kids at all age levels, teaching archery fundamentals and then helping them formulate plans for how they might progress.
“The thing about coaching is that you not only try to develop a youngster within their particular sport, you also try to develop their character. Like many other sports, archery is a discipline. Overall, shooting form is probably the most important thing, but at the same time you have to realize everyone is built differently, does things differently. You have to take what the archer gives you and get the best out of them,” Breese explained.
Once archers get the basics down, usually around the time they are intermediate shooters, archery becomes more of a mental game, Breese said. The youngsters understand they must take care of their equipment and physical conditioning to perform at top levels. Shooters need to enter competition believing they can perform well or even win, but they can’t dwell on mistakes.
“You have to recover, learn from mistakes and move on,” Breese said.
This aspect of competitive archery is where some of Breese’s prized students speak the most highly of him.
The Arrow Splitters club has seen several regional and state champions in recent years. Two King George girls, Anna Ackerman and Lexi Loughner, qualified to shoot in the 4-H national championships in Nebraska in 2018. The Virginia team finished in the middle of an experienced, talented field.
Ackerman, then 16, has been shooting since she was a young girl, joining the 4-H squad when she was 11. She calls Breese, “definitely the best mentor I’ve ever had. He’s really understanding and can tell if I’m getting irritated with how I’m shooting and help me relax. He’s really wise, knows what he’s talking about. If you have any questions about archery go to him and he will help you.”
Loughner, also 16, said, “It’s crazy. I never thought I’d go from shooting in the yard a couple years ago to qualifying to shoot in the national championships.”
She credits much of her success to Breese.
Both girls receive a lot of coaching at home from their fathers, but said it helps to have an additional non-parent perspective.
“Honestly, it helps to have another coach besides my father because it’s another viewpoint,” Ackerman said. She explained that she, like many teens, sometimes tune out their parents and having a knowledgeable coach like Breese helps some of lessons sink in.
“You can’t get coached by your parents all the time,” Ackerman noted.
Loughner said Breese is superb at helping new shooters learn the mechanics, honing their shooting form and then working them up to the more technical aspects, including the all-important “mental game” archers must master for consistency. “If I get down on myself, he’ll tell me to keep going, forget the last shot and keep going,” Loughner said.
Breese said having two of his King George proteges qualify to shoot in the 4-H national competition is a “dream come true. It thrills me to my core!” he said.
April Phillips, Loughner’s mother, praised Breese for his dedication to helping the kids.
“What I like about Tom is he is knowledgeable about all kinds of bows, compounds, barebows – stick and a string as he calls them,” she said. “He does so much for the 4-H club, opening up his home so they have a place to shoot.”
The Arrow Splitters club isn’t solely focused on competition. Shelba Durham’s son Justin was born with Down Syndrome. Ainsley's Angels is a nonprofit organization seeking to build awareness about America's special needs community through inclusion in all aspects of life. Fredericksburg ambassador Michele Tritt helped pair Justin with Breese and the Arrow Splitters.
“From the first day, Tom included Justin in everything that represents Arrow Splitters. He jumped right in and loaned my son a bow and took time to teach Justin and myself the proper care, allowing us to possess the bow for as long as Justin needed,” Durham shared.
“Over time, Justin grew with the program and with that his confidence began to soar. He loves Tom and the other coaches because they are patient, yet firm. They treat him with compassion but never separate him from the group when it comes to expectations, allowing Justin to feel as typical as he might be able to. Without Tom working with our family and Justin, I am not sure he would have ever had this opportunity to be involved in a community program with typical peers. We are grateful for Tom's dedication and sincere heart,” Durham added.
Breese shared a story about returning from Vietnam in his uniform. Military members were discouraged from traveling in their uniforms during those days. “A boy who lived across the street from my parents was playing in the street. I stopped and talked with him. I saw the same guy years later at Quantico. He was a Marine Corps staff sergeant. He told me I was the reason why he joined the Marine Corps. I never realized when I stopped and talked with him that day that I would make that kind of an impact on his life.
“All of us impact people in positive ways throughout our lives. Eventually, we run into somebody who says, ‘I want to be that guy,’” Breese said. “If I only had one student who looked at me and said, ‘I want to be that guy,’ it would be a great thing.”