Exclusive Interview with Brian Mast
Never Give up
By George Beck
Sept. 19, 2010, changed Brian Mast’s life forever. Mast, an Army Explosives, Ordinance and Demolition (EOD) bomb technician under special operations, flew into Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in a swarm of helicopters and took heavy enemy fire while landing. It was a dark night and many of the rounds missed.
Mast led his men through the darkness. As part of Task Force Merrill, they were out to neutralize a high-value target.
They were close to the high-value target when Mast halted his men. He wanted to make sure the land was clear before his men advanced. Searching the suspicious terrain, he looked for tripwires, batteries or signs of disturbed earth, and in a flash he was struck by an IED. The explosion threw Mast into the air; he landed a few yards away plastered in soot and dirt. His eyes covered with mud, he could barely see. And so he could not see his own condition. The blast had taken away his breath. He was coughing for air.
Then, in his earpiece, he heard one of his men, “EOD was hit.” That was the moment he realized the danger he was in. He was the one everyone was rushing to. His last recollection is of his men wrenching tourniquets on his legs and arm, followed by them loading him onto a chopper and rendering him one last salute, before the abyss drew him in. Days later, he awoke in a hospital bed. It was September 25th at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Shadowy figures above him in a circle began to resolve into human faces.
“Brian, you can’t let this keep you down,” a voice said. “You have to find a way to pull yourself up.”
Mast squinted in the direction of the voice. It sounded familiar. Then he smiled. It was his father. Then he looked around and saw his family surrounding his hospital bed. Then he looked at himself, at what had remained. Losing five days of consciousness was the least of it. He had lost both his legs slightly above the knees, part of his left forearm, and his left index finger. But the love and support he got that day from his family, turned whatever shock and dismay he might have felt into a vow that he would never allow his condition to define his future. He determined that his best days were ahead of him, not behind, and regardless of the challenges he was going to do great things for his family and for his country.
Currently featured on the History Channel’s “Live to Tell” series, Mast tells his story of heroism, and in this exclusive interview offers his views on life, the military, and law enforcement. Since awakening in the hospital, Mast’s life has been blessed with the birth of a third child, a Harvard education, volunteer work with the Israel Defense Forces at the Sar-El Army base, and a candidacy for the United States Congress, among other impressive accomplishments. We salute Mast for his heroism, bravery, and commitment to never give up! His resolve is as impressive as it is inspiring.
NJ Blue Now: Tell our readers about yourself, what is something nobody knows about?
Every morning I wake up with a song in my head. Usually a country song. This morning it was Johnny Cash, “When the man comes around.”
Why did you join the Army?
I always wanted to serve my country, I always liked to shoot, hunt, camp, and when I graduated high school I couldn’t wait to enlist.
When you were wounded in Afghanistan, did you think you were finished? Was there a moment you thought you would die?
It all happened very quickly. I recently did a show with the History Channel on the night I was injured and the guys I was with all said I was very calm. I did not think about dying specifically, but I was thinking in that moment about my wife and my son and how I did not want to leave them, I could not leave them.
What was that moment like when you were lying there? What flashed in your mind?
The moment was very painful. The wind was knocked out of me. My teeth felt as though they had been rattled loose, and I was experiencing the pain of my guys ratcheting down tourniquets on my legs and arm in order to save me. But again I was thinking about my family mostly.
What do you believe is the difference between people who pull themselves up and those who don’t?
I was able to pull myself up. Part of it was a great example. When my father first saw me in the hospital he told me, “Brian you can’t let this keep you down. You have to find a way to pull yourself up, get back out there and back to work. You can’t let your kids see you sitting on your butt regardless of what happened because they will think it is an okay way to go through life.”
I was fortunate I had a wife who loved me and friends who cared and a country who told me they were proud, it made all the difference. But I also had people kick me in the butt and remind me the tragedy we face does not matter at all compared to what we do in response to the tragedy we face. We need to be challenged and challenge each other and not give each other any excuse not to push on. We have to remind each other excuses will never make us great. We can all find an excuse to quit, but what we really need is to use challenges as an excuse to be strong. We can all do it.
Was there a time when you ever thought that life was too difficult in your situation?
Never. It was the next challenge and I was going to be damned if this challenge, the most important of my life, was going to beat me. The loss of both legs was the greatest opportunity ever given to me to inspire others to never quit, to never curl up into a corner, but rather give tough times a size 12 in the backside. And now what was hard at first is just normal and not hard. We all face the same two disabilities in life I believe: having the courage to do something even though we may fail, and having the determination and will to do everything we can to make sure we do not fail at what we want to achieve.
Also, my time since being wounded has shown me the voice I can have on behalf of our veterans, and in showing people challenges do not destroy us or define us, they make us who we are and if we let them, they can be the tools that make us the strongest we have ever been. I think that is what America needs today, people who will say we don’t make excuses, we find a way, we claw our way through adversity, that is our heritage as a nation.
Does Post-Traumatic Stress affect you?
Not at all. I could not be more at peace with everything I did on the battlefield and everything that happened to me on the battlefield. I would do it all again in a second. Our country and our people are worth my last breath and the last beat of my heart, and whenever I go I will hope it is in a pile of brass on some battlefield, defending our country.
Are many of the criticisms about the VA and the treatment of wounded warriors justified?
No. Two VAs I have been to are exactly the same, but documented accounts of the VA prove treatments often are not where they need to be. The VA is a large federal bureaucracy and they do not have to fight for the dollars of veterans they care for. This is not the best model for superior care. One example is when I recently needed a new cane. First I was told to go get a script from my primary care provider, then he told me I had to go see physical therapy to get a cane, then physical therapy told me I had to take a one-hour class on how to use a cane. I use a cane every day and do not need a class so I went and bought my own after telling them very descriptively about how I felt about them wasting my time.
What do you make of all the negative sentiment against law enforcement?
Law enforcement walk out the door each day the same way each soldier does: with the knowledge they may not come home to their family, and with the willingness to place themselves between danger and any person needing help. That is the definition of selfless. I believe our police are the same as our soldiers; we never enter the fray in defense of only some people. We defend every American regardless of color, race, gender or anything else.
How serious is the Jihadi threat against police in this country?
It is very serious. Terrorists want to make U.S. towns and streets their new battlefield. This means police need to be prepared to face an enemy that is utilizing the tactics used for the last 15 years against our military in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what is scarier is that this enemy has the availability of soft targets that are endless in number.
Are our political leaders blind to the true threat?
Many of our political leaders are the threat. Ideologically, there are too many leaders who fail to apply the same traits to leadership, that they would want their own children to be defined by. No one would ever want their children in debt or to live beyond their means, so why then would any leader feel our country could sustain such debt? When our leaders do not support free markets and competition they are hurting us. And when our leaders do not do everything they can to draw the best out of Americans then they are not really leading. Leaders inspire, they make the impossible, possible, and they do not create nanny states and try to tell us mediocrity is okay. This is the real world, and not everyone gets a trophy.
What do you make of President Obama’s lack of participation at military and police funerals, especially his lack of response during a week that seven police officers lost their lives?
I believe it is a fact for most people that we find a way to make time for the things we care about. President Obama’s silence and absence from standing tall alongside law enforcement is his position. He does not care about law enforcement officers or the law. It was always a favorite passage of scripture for me that says, “we will know a tree by the fruit it bears.” And President Obama is not bearing the fruit of one who recognizes and appreciates the sacrifice of those who defend our country and our streets.
What is your definition of brotherhood and how it relates to race, gender, and religion when on the battlefield?
Brotherhood knows no race or gender. It is selfless and knows only the ethos by which it will make a stand. We who serve live by a warrior ethos, which is something unfortunately President Obama never learned. We always place the mission first. We never accept defeat. We never quit. We never leave a fallen comrade.
Why do you want to run for Congress?
When I left the Army, I knew that I would soon run for Congress. I remember telling my wife when I was first injured, that I don’t know how to go through life and have the best I have given our country be in my past. Despite injury I will make sure the best defense I give our homeland is still ahead. Service to America is something that is inside me. I cannot turn it on or off like a light, it will always be part of who I am, and that did not end for me when I took off a uniform.
I will be the example in Congress that every fallen American soldier has been for me. That we serve for our people, without regard for gain and without regard for sacrifice. The cost to maintain America as the exemplar of freedom will remain great but it will always be worth the sacrifice. And any who are not willing to endure the sacrifice have no place alongside those willing to sacrifice all for our country. I am also running for Congress to make sure I defend this country every day from threats internal and external.
How will your military and life experience serve Congress and the American people?
The military taught me three very important lessons. (1) Great leaders never ask their men to do something they would not do themselves, (2) The decisions I make have very real consequences for the people I serve, and (3) if you choose to serve America in any capacity then there is only one way to do it: without regard for gain or sacrifice.
These principles will guide my decisions as a member of Congress.
Why did you volunteer with the IDF, and what did you learn from them?
I volunteered to serve alongside the IDF because I believe in showing support for what I believe in with the work of my hands. Talk is cheap. I will always make sure people know where my passion is by where I leave my blood, sweat and tears. I learned firsthand that U.S. and Israel are brothers in the hope we offer. We both offer freedom, opportunity, a democratic system, human rights for all regardless of belief, and a system that unleashes the individual will of man, not stifle it. We are brothers in that we will not look at evil and do nothing. As Americans we must ask ourselves what country in the Middle East we would want the rest of the Middle East to look like. Our answer surely could not be Libya, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia. As Americans we could only possibly want the Middle East to look like Israel. As a result, I believe we must support fully the most peaceful country in the region, Israel, in order to establish peace in the region.
Is there anything else beyond political pursuits that you’d like to accomplish in your lifetime?
It is not political that I pursue office. It is a continuation of the service I have already gladly given our country. I will strive every day to make sure the best defense I give our country is always ahead of me, whether my battlefield is a far off land or Washington, D.C.
Lighter side questions:
What is your favorite movie?
Favorite baseball team?
Favorite football team?
Favorite actor or actress?
What is your strongest quality?
I will always believe my country is more important than me.
I hold a grudge.
George Washington. He crossed a the frozen Delaware River, in the dead of
night, in order to defeat our enemies!
George Beck is a police detective, writer and a Drew University Ph.D. candidate.
He’s earned several degrees including an associate’s, bachelor’s and two master’s
degrees. He is the author of The Killer Among Us (Noir Nation Books) and several
other books. His nonfiction and short stories have been featured in magazines and
anthologies nationally and internationally.