Congressman and wounded veteran gives it his all battling for his country and constituents
BY WENDY DWYER
Some of the earliest and fondest memories Brian Mast has aren’t of birthday parties or first bicycles — they are of time spent at the beach and on or near the water. Though born and raised in Michigan, Mast says his family spent nearly every possible vacation in Florida, and the water was his first love.
“I realized from about the age of three that this was where I wanted to be forever,” the Florida congressman says.
When he graduated from high school in 1999, he didn’t miss a beat and drove his Ford Mustang to Florida to attend Palm Beach Atlantic College.
Now in his third term representing Florida’s 18th Congressional District, it was in college that Mast says he first felt the pull toward service and chose to enlist in the military. The initial plan was for a lifetime of service in the Army, following in the footsteps of his father, but there is no doubt that the adventure was alluring, too.
As an explosive ordnance disposal specialist under the elite Joint Special Operations Command, Mast’s role was to “research and identify military weapons, assist leadership in the preparation and use of advanced robotics, dispose of hazardous objects, and perform missions in support of Army units worldwide, across all environmental conditions.”
“We worked only at night and only on high-level targets, to kill or capture terrorists,” he says. “My job was to lead and clear the way of explosive hazards because they are the biggest killer.”
WOUNDED IN AFGHANISTAN
On Sept. 19, 2010, while stationed in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb he found detonated underneath his feet, resulting in the loss of both of legs.
“I remember everything about it,” he says of the catastrophic event, “being tumbled through the air, the tourniquets and my colleagues wrenching them down on my mangled legs, being put on the stretcher, and loaded onto the helicopter. After that, I have no memories for about a week until I was in D.C. in the hospital there.”
He says there were moments when he was conscious and communicating with others during that week, but even 11 years later, he has no memory of them. It was a very dark time, but Mast is nothing if not tenacious.
“Some of my first thoughts were naive,” he says, “and mixed with some realism. I was laying there at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland] thinking ‘I am going to slap on two prosthetics, do a couple weeks of therapy and go back into the next rotation with my comrades.’ ”
Despite the innocent optimism, he says that at the same time, there was a part of him that realized he wasn’t going to be an asset the way he had been before. During this dark time, Mast’s father gave him a piece of advice that served as the inspiration to help him set his coordinates in a forward direction, telling his son to make sure the greatest service he gave to his country was the best example he could set for his children that were yet to come.
He says, “My next battlefield would be one of words and action.”
PERFECT PLACE TO LIVE
Since 2015, Mast and wife Brianna have chosen St. Lucie County as the perfect place to live and raise a growing family. The couple lived in Ocean Village, then moved to Palm City near Harbour Ridge, and most recently chose another home with beautiful views of the area’s waterways.
As it is with nearly everyone in St. Lucie County, being close to the water has always been important to Mast, whose work to keep Florida’s waterways clean and pollution-free is practically legendary.
“Hands down, the thing we work on and spend most of our time on is Florida’s water issue and specifically our coast,” he says.
Having been such an integral part of his life, Mast has an affinity and desire to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy Florida’s beauty and water.
“I can’t say I always thought of it,” he says, “but as a kid, all you want to do is jump off the dock, be pulled behind a boat, or jump a wave or sit with your dad and a line in the water. Everything you love to do at that age is around the water. It’s still that way, but now the stakes are higher because you look at the health of your kids, value of your home, businesses and livelihoods of your friends — all of it revolves around clean water, and the stakes go beyond that.”
NEW TYPE OF SERVICE
Representing Floridians in the state he has called home since 1999 has been a new experience for Mast. He says being able to help others is both an honor and responsibility he embraces with every fiber of his being, even during a time when the country and its constituents are so polarized that navigating even the community is an adventure in and of itself.
Despite the opposing opinions, Mast says he is stridently dedicated to serving all of his constituents and is grateful for the tools that his position provides to do so.
“It’s not a magic wand,” he says of the position, “but it’s the opportunity to help. I think a lot of people realized that most during the height of the COVID-19 shutdown, when they were trying to get a Paycheck Protection Loan for their business or get through to the unemployment office and our office was the only one answering the phone.”
He says there was no time for rest during those months.
“Like everyone else, we were working from home in shifts and staff from my office would answer the phones at 3 a.m. as quickly as we did at 3 p.m. When you couldn’t get anyone on the line, you could get in touch with us.”
ALWAYS TRYING TO HELP
Though he loves the service to community and country, Mast says one of the biggest honors comes, not when he is in Washington with all its pomp and ceremony, but rather when he is home and someone stops him to chat. People from Palm Beach to Vero Beach will stop to say hello, and almost always, they call him by his first name, not his title.
“I don’t take that disrespectfully,” he says. “I love the fact that people feel like they know me as Brian and they feel that level of comfort.”
He says the level of familiarity and the desire to help others he sees in the community is indicative of our makeup as American citizens.
“As Americans,” Mast says, “we try to help. It’s what we do. We simply help through a church; when there is a natural disaster, we pack up a trailer of goods; we just do that and share our resources and time here and everywhere. That defines us. I try to make sure it defines being around our community, too.
“If I can help by being there at an event, even a small group meeting, that is how we pay it forward.”
For Mast, that means working tirelessly in Washington and Florida, both legislatively and by attending as many events and activities with constituents as he is able. This often makes life challenging for Mast and his wife as well as their four young children, ages 11, 9, 6 and 2.
“We started homeschooling so we could travel with the kids,” he says. “Sometimes I bring one with me to Washington and when I can, that child gets a special education and trips to the many memorials in D.C. Even the time flying is educational for both me and the children.”
When he is not working for his constituents, Mast says his biggest hobby is looking for the next adventure, whether it’s the zoo, a shark dive or going to an event to help others.
“Who I am at work is who I am when I’m home,” he says unapologetically.
UNDERSTANDING HIS PURPOSE
Helping to protect the water and the citizens of his district may be a different kind of battlefield adventure and one that Mast admits was the furthest from his mind when he enlisted in the Army, but his intention is to do the best job he can with every tool in the box.
“When I was injured, the most difficult thing is losing our purpose,” he says. “If you lose that, it’s devastating. As I was going through the recovery process, I understood that my purpose was to protect my community. The best defense I could give was not going to be the day I was injured but what was in front of me.
“There is no doubt about it; the principles carry over in the way that you fight. That’s one of the places I connect most well with the people who give me the honor of representing them. My commitment hasn’t changed; the battlefield has. I nearly gave my life once before for my country and I still would. I hope the people I meet feel the same way about me.”