Rep. Brian Mast: Reflections on Journey from Injured Soldier to Lawmaker

Rep. Brian Mast looks out the window of a Coast Guard Air Station Miami HC-144 Ocean Sentry during an overflight assessment of south Florida following Hurricane Irma in 2017. (Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Barney/USCG)

The path from injured soldier to lawmaker was ‘no accident.’

Brian Mast was no stranger to explosions.

When a bomb detonated underneath him on an Afghan riverbank in the dark of night on September 19, 2010, sending him nearly ten feet in the air, it wasn’t his first blast.

As a bomb-disposal expert under the elite Joint Special Operations Command, he had been around bombs that detonated before — be they triggered by someone else or ones that he was working on himself. But that night was the first time Mast was injured.

In a recent interview with National Review ahead of the tenth anniversary of his life-changing explosion, the Florida Republican recalled the night his unit had undertaken a mission as part of Operation Dragon Strike, a counterinsurgency to reclaim ground in the southern provinces.

As the unit headed toward the location of a high-value target, he had checked, on his hands and knees, both sides of a riverbank for any tripwires or explosives, knowing that there had to be devices in the area. After his search didn’t yield any sign of hidden devices, he continued moving forward.

Then, a blast.

He recalls landing on his back, enveloped by an opaque mushroom cloud of smoke, unable to see anything. As the smoke cleared, he looked down to find his left forearm and fingers barely hanging on. The wind had been knocked out of him, he was in searing pain and numb at the same time, and he was trying to determine if he still had any teeth left.

His teeth were intact, but he had lost both of his legs and one of his fingers in the blast.

He woke up days later, back in the states, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“I was thinking in my mind I was going to be able to slap on prosthetics, do physical therapy for a couple of weeks, and I was going to be out on the battlefield again,” he said.

Slowly he began to realize that wasn’t the reality. He would never be able to “return to the battlefield as an asset ever again,” he said.

Lawmakers visited Mast in the hospital, as did his father, a former soldier who encouraged his son to make sure the best things he would do, and the best defense he would provide the country, were still ahead of him. He also knew he wanted to make his wife and six-month-old son proud.

Mast realized he could serve his country in another way.

“Maybe my next battlefield will be what these people are doing,” he recalled thinking. “Maybe it’ll be this battlefield of words and ideas as a lawmaker, as a member of Congress. Those people that get to talk about rules of engagement and what our military has for equipment and what we need, and take some of those skills there.”

In his early days of recovery, ahead of even a doctor’s recommendation to begin physical therapy, Mast began to devise a plan.

The first step was getting out of bed.

He began wandering the hospital and visiting the physical therapy room on his own, against his doctors’ instructions to rest.

“Let me go out there and finish my degree,” he recalls thinking.

He received his bachelor of liberal arts from Harvard Extension School in 2016.

“Let me go out there and become a part of a community, so that when I ask if I can be their representative, they will know me and they will say ‘OK, we’ll give you that opportunity,’” he thought next.

In 2016, he became the representative for Florida’s 18th congressional district, representing an area in southeastern Florida that includes northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.

The path from injured soldier to lawmaker was “no accident,” Mast said.

“Life has gotten better since that day on one thousand different fronts. But it wasn’t an accident. It was because of my country that I came home to and the way they treated me,” he said. “It’s a direct result of my faith, it’s a direct result of my family and the community that I came home to.”

Mast remained on active duty and provided expertise to the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms while recovering.

After his retirement from the Army, where he served for more than twelve years, he continued working in counterterrorism and national defense as an explosives specialist with the Department of Homeland Security.

He also volunteered to serve alongside the Israel Defense Forces “to show support for the freedom Israel represents throughout the Middle East and the world.”

Mast, who had only ever wanted to be a soldier, had not seen a career in politics in his future. Military service was in his blood, and when he enlisted after high school, he found he was a “round peg in a round hole.” He just fit.

He found the environment in the Army was a natural extension of his competitive nature, honed through years of running track and playing football.

His drive to be the best propelled him through a selection and assessment process to join a Special Operations unit — a rigorous, voluntary process that soldiers can quit at any time. Mast carried 100 pounds on his back while doing a 15–20 mile ruck march, in which he marched with his rifle and all of his gear until instructed to stop, having no idea how long he would be asked to run.

The soldiers had mandatory stopping points where they would check their feet, grab water, and make sure they weren’t overheating.

Approaching the stopping point in third place, where his friends were sitting on the floor checking their feet, Mast did something unconventional.

He just kept going.

The people running the assessment yelled after him to stop, but he soldiered on. His friends grabbed their boots and took off running after him, trying to keep up.

“I think it’s a good example of the way that we inspire, the way that we drive each other in life, and I can never lose that,” the 40-year-old veteran said.

Mast worked his way up from combat engineer to bomb technician, ultimately working with Special Operations units. His service earned him a slew of medals, including the Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal for Valor, the Purple Heart Medal, and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.

And he did inspire others. After returning home, strangers wanted to buy him a beer or pay for his breakfast, anything to show thanks for his service.

“People didn’t look at me as Republican or Democrat, wherever I went,” he said.

But all that changed when he became involved in politics.

“When you’re in politics like this, not everybody, but there are many out there that want to see you, not just fail, but they want to see you destroyed,” the second-term congressman said.

“They want to see you in a situation that you will never recover from in life.”

“‘How dare you step up and be a member of Congress, representing your community and the Constitution and conservative values? You will pay for that and hopefully never recover from that in your life.’” he said, explaining “that is the way that people come against us.”

The partisan aggression and division contrast starkly with Mast’s time in the military, where his colleagues risked their own lives to save him after the explosion that wounded him, running to recover him without knowing if there were additional explosives hidden nearby.

The country’s division keeps Mast awake at night — he considers it the biggest issue the nation faces today.

In four years as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mast can’t fathom why, with the threat of China and Russia looming, all the committee’s members have never sat down alongside members of the House, the Senate, the Pentagon, the State Department, and other federal agencies to work together on a plan to keep the country safe from its greatest security threats.

“We’re so segregated right now that I think it hurts America,” he said. “That truly keeps me up at night, that we are not sitting together on a weekly basis like that, addressing these issues.”

“Spending more time on the bickering than on the working together does not help our country. If anything, it puts our country at a severe disadvantage,” he added.

Last month, protesters shouting about police brutality swarmed Mast and other guests of the Republican National Convention as they left the White House. Video shows one protester getting in Mast’s face, pointing and repeatedly yelling, ”What do you think about police killing black people in this country?” and “How do you feel about police murdering black people in this country?”

“I don’t think anybody should get killed wrongfully. That takes somebody’s right to due process,” he said, remaining calm as the mob grew louder.

Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) who had separately been swarmed that night, said if it weren’t for police, he and his wife likely would have been severely injured.

Partisan issues matter far less back home in Palm City, Fla., where he lives with his wife Brianna and four children — Magnum, Maverick, Madalyn, and Major — and works to help constituents in his district with everything from unemployment issues to water-quality concerns.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re a Republican or a Democrat or don’t ever vote,” he said. “They just want their representative to help them with their issue.”

Mast does, however, face a tough reelection back home against Democratic challenger Pam Keith. The campaign has resurfaced comments Mast made on Facebook in 2009 and 2011 in which he joked about rape and referenced sex with 15-year-old girls.

Mast has apologized for the comments, saying, “A decade ago when I was in the Army, and following my injury, I made disgusting and inappropriate jokes that I am embarrassed to have associated with my name today.”

“I am sorry about that part of who I was, and I strive every day to be a better example for my kids.”

Like his military missions, Mast said, the work of Congress requires sustained attention on a long-term goal with not much in the way of positive reinforcement along the way.

“The work that we did [in the military] was never intended for fun. The design of it was very, very serious,” he said. “It could mean my leg landing in front of one of my friends, or it can be one of those friends of mine tripping a tripwire and it taking their life, them being killed in action, or something else like that, just as serious.”

But it was fun for Mast when his team was able to achieve “mission accomplished.”

“When we went into those places, and we eliminated our enemies, and we got the high-value targets that we needed to take off the battlefield. And we reached mission accomplished. That’s where the fun came, amidst all of the terribleness of it,” he said.

That’s the way he describes Congress — not inherently fun.

“It’s very serious work,” he said. “But when I have fun is when we reach mission accomplished.”

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