The anti-Israel activists draped in Palestinian flags in the tony Beacon Hill neighborhood who yelled at and taunted the U.S. Army veteran and his family in Boston’s Public Garden couldn’t have known that they’d be partly responsible for shaping one of Israel’s staunchest defenders in Congress.
But this wasn’t just any man upon whom they chose to pick.
“It’s not hard to figure out that I’m a veteran. I don’t have any legs, and I wear a hat that says ‘Army Ranger,’ so most people with half a mind can put two and two together,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) told JNS.
At the time, Mast had retired in 2012 after a dozen years of service as an explosive specialist who lost both legs to a bomb in Afghanistan in 2010. He was studying at Harvard University, and he and his then-pregnant wife, Brianna, and their two sons (they now have four children) would go to the picturesque Public Garden in the evenings so the kids could ride their bikes and play in the grass.
The protesters, who showed up weekly or so, decided to yell things like “You’re the big Satan” and “You’re a pawn” at Mast, the congressman told JNS. Mast, who is Christian, hadn’t followed Israel closely at the time, although he saw references on the news.
The jeers represented the “first catalyst” for the congressman’s decision to connect much more deeply with the Jewish state.
“These people, who were out there to protest Israel, all of a sudden wanted to pick a fight with me, which is just fine. I don’t mind getting into verbal or physical confrontations with other people,” Mast, 42, a fourth-term congressman representing Florida’s 21st District, told JNS.
“It was the first time this fight had really ever been thrown at my feet in that way, where people were trying to drag me into what I was seeing in the news,” he said.
Mast found their verbal assaults hypocritical. He told JNS that he had said of the attacks on Israel in one of his Harvard classes, “If it was Mexico or Canada or some Caribbean country firing rockets into America, then guys like me would go and kill them, and every American would be proud of us for doing so.”
He came home after enduring the taunts one night and told his wife, “I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I’m going to find a way, and I’m going to go and show my support for Israel. I’m going to go out there and find a way to fight against this hypocrisy.”
‘Complaining is not the same thing as helping’
The congressman is fairly active on social media, where he has often come to Israel’s defense. “I’m proud to be the only member of Congress who has worn both the uniform of the United States Army and the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, and I’ll continue to stand for the strongest partnership possible between our two countries,” he tweeted earlier this month.
In May 2021, after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) accused Israel of terrorism for defending itself against Hamas, Mast read dozens of examples of Hamas terrorist attacks into the Congressional Record. Two days later, he tweeted: “I served alongside the Israeli military after losing my legs, and so, it’s personal to me when Hamas attacks Israel and House Dems actually defends the terrorists.”
“In the military, we have a dark and morbid sense of humor.”
But that’s getting ahead of the story. Back in Boston in 2014, when “Operation Protective Edge” was unfolding in Israel, Mast had a philosophy that recognized the vast gulf between social media and real life.
“I’m not going to say I don’t participate in Facebook and Twitter and things like that. Sure, I do. That world is a virtual, fake world of not real work. And I’m not trying to take away from influencers, but it’s not real,” he told JNS. “Complaining about what’s going on with the attacks in Israel is not the same thing as going there and helping.”
“You gotta get your hands dirty. You gotta get involved in real life,” he added.
With his wife’s blessing, Mast contacted every advocacy group he could, including the Israeli consulate in Miami, to find a way to volunteer in uniform on an Israeli military base. He got his chance in January 2015, on a base outside Tel Aviv, “to show support for the freedom Israel represents throughout the Middle East and the world,” per his congressional website.
He arrived back stateside just in time for his wife to give birth to their third child.
‘Get my hands dirty’
The Masts have four children—all named for references familiar to those who grew up in the 1980s—Magnum (“Magnum, P.I.”), Maverick (“Top Gun” and the 1994 film “Maverick”), Madalyn (3-year-old Madeleine McCann, who was abducted in 2007) and Major (“me being in the military and looking for an ‘M’ name”).
Volunteering on the base near Tel Aviv was his first time in Israel. “I can’t sit here and pretend that I had this longstanding dream of going and walking the footsteps of where David killed Goliath or be baptized in this river. It wasn’t this longstanding dream for me,” he said. “When a fight is laid in front of me, I’m going to fight it. And I’m not going to fight it in a virtual way. I’m going to find a way to get my hands dirty and make a real tangible difference.”
“One of the most important things that I realized, as we were sitting there to have these Shabbat dinners, every family was waiting for a son or daughter or a grandson or a granddaughter to come home.”
In Israel, word spread quickly that a legless U.S. Army veteran was on the base, and people flocked to meet the celebrity visitor.
“I was working very hard, waking up very early every morning. Eating in the chow hall with the troops. Putting on my uniform. Going out there and working,” he said. “But it became somewhat of a national event. I’m not trying to oversell it. A lot of people read about it and knew there’s this injured American service member over here serving in our military. What’s this all about?”
An “endless stream” of “people with access” found its way to him. “I had visits with Yitzhak Rabin’s family,” he said, referring to the former Israeli prime minister and defense minister who was assassinated in 1995. “I had people coming from other bases.” He visited Beit Halochem, House of the Warrior, “their place for wounded warriors like myself.” He played wheelchair basketball and shot pool with fellow injured soldiers. “Had that exchange, that fellowship with them,” he said.
He connected particularly with Israeli colleagues who had also been bomb techs (in Yahalom). “There’s immediate kinship because bomb tech is a very small world of people,” he said. “Working with some of these people and realizing that we had served with some of the same units throughout the years in different places.”
And on weekends, he saw families host “lone soldiers,” young people in the IDF who don’t have family in Israel. They invited him to join them on visits to Yad Vashem and elsewhere.
“One of the most important things that I realized, as we were sitting there to have these Shabbat dinners, every family was waiting for a son or daughter or a grandson or a granddaughter to come home for Shabbat,” Mast said. “That was really one of the biggest ways that I realized how much service over there touches every single family—unlike the way that it does here in America, where we have a very small percentage of people that serve.”
That taught him the most important lesson that he took away from Israel. “They don’t war. They don’t want to have rockets fired at them. They don’t want to go into shelters. They don’t want to hear sirens,” he said. “They want their kids to grow and have families and survive. As much as I hope all four of my kids serve in the military, I don’t want to see them have to go to war.”
Mast credited former President Donald Trump (he supports him in the upcoming presidential election, although he said he remains friends with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis) with moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, “something so simple, but that so many politicians were so afraid of for so many years.” He also praised the 2020 Abraham Accords and called the Iran nuclear deal, which the Trump administration nixed in May 2018, “just absolute garbage.”
Bringing military service to the Hill
Asked how his service in the military—for which he earned a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart, among other commendations—informs his work on the Hill, Mast told JNS: “I guess it does in every way.”
“You can’t separate the person and their experiences in life from the way that they advocate for policy.”
One doesn’t join the military if one worries about personal sacrifice or is motivated by personal gain.
“If you’re thinking about what you’re going to get out of it—how you’re going to get rich or famous, a book deal or a movie or whatever, it doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Mast goes after things “tenaciously,” he told JNS, “just as hard as I would go after anything in combat.” That doesn’t always make him many friends, “but that’s the way I do it.”
The best way to tell the difference, generally, between colleagues who have and have not served is their sense of humor, according to Mast.
“In the military, we have a dark and morbid sense of humor. We can make fun of the fact that I don’t have any legs or the ways that I lost them, or where I can tell someone to stick a prosthetic foot or a host of different things that it seems like everybody else in the world gets all bent out of shape for and doesn’t realize how to take a joke,” he said.
“The best jokes are the most inappropriate,” he quipped.