Famous for his acclaimed short story collection The Things They Carried, O'Brien also based his National Book Award-winning novel Going After Cacciato upon his Vietnam War experiences. Another of his novels, In the Lake of the Woods, received the 1995
Upon completing his bachelor's degree in political science at Macalester College, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After serving in Vietnam and subsequently completing his graduate studies at Harvard University, he published his debut work, a memoir titled If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.
In 2003, he became chair of the graduate creative writing program at Texas State University-San Marcos.
Born and raised in Minnesota, he later settled in Texas with his wife Meredith and his sons Timmy and Tad.
O'Brien and fellow American author Philip Caputo both penned works with Vietnam War themes.