R epresentative Brian Mast was first elected in 2016 to represent Florida’s 18th District, home to some 32,000 Jews on Florida’s east coast, stretching north from Palm Beach to Port St. Lucie. Before that, Mast, a Republican, served in the US Army as a bomb sapper in Afghanistan, where he lost both his legs in the course of duty. During his military career, he received the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and Army Commendation Medal. Following intense rehab, Mast went on to earn a degree from Harvard and pursue a career in politics. An enthusiastic supporter of Israel, Mast is also a member of the congressional lobby against anti-Semitism and of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he makes his voice heard in favor of Israel at every opportunity

Tell me about your military service.

I served for about a dozen years in the US Army as a bomb technician. In 2010, while trying to disarm an explosive device, I was injured, resulting in the loss of both of my legs, my left index finger, and a piece of my forearm. One thing I tell people is that I don’t regret a minute of it. All my life, I wanted to be in the military and serve my country.

What do you remember from the day of the injury?

Everything. Every single night, the force I was part of would go after whatever target it was that we had to eliminate. One night we came to a place where I pretty much knew there was an IED (improvised explosive device) buried in the ground. I told my team, “If I needed to put a bomb anywhere, this spot would be it.” Sure enough, the device was there and I ended up stepping on it. In all likelihood, what I stepped on was a pressure plate, a kind of a mine. I remember it throwing me into the air, I remember landing, I remember the explosion and feeling this knock on my chin.

When I landed, I tried to figure out what’d happened. I could hardly catch my breath and I was in a lot of pain. My ear piece was still on, so I could hear my men radioing it up: “EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] is hurt, EOD is down.” That was me. I realized they were talking about me. And then they put me on a stretcher. It was the weirdest thing. You do so much training, and I carried other people on stretchers, but it is very, very surreal when it’s actually you on the stretcher, to be carried across the battlefield, to lie on your back and look up at the stars, to be loaded onto a helicopter with all the dust, the hay, the grass and everything. I woke up in the hospital in Washington, D.C.

How and when did you decide to run for Congress?

I started to think about it when I woke up in the hospital. I’d planned on being a lifelong military guy, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t going to return to the battlefield. It’s a difficult thing to lose your purpose in life, and I’d just lost mine — defending my country, defending my brothers on the battlefield — and it was tough. I tried to figure out what my next step would be, until I reached the decision that my next battlefield would be fighting the war of ideology as a member of Congress. Being a military guy, I devised a plan of attack to get elected: Recover, learn to walk, finish up my degree, then get back to being a contributing member of society.

In 2015 you went to Israel to volunteer in the IDF. What gave you that idea?

It was in 2014, just after Operation Protective Edge. Here, the media was pretty negative about it, blaming Israel in what I saw as a double standard. If some country, say Canada or Cuba, were to start launching rockets at the US mainland, guys like me would go and kill them, and everybody would be proud of us. But Israel, which is attacked year after year by people who go and cower behind the civilian population and put them in danger, wasn’t getting that support.

How did you become so aware of the situation in Israel?

My connection to Israel goes all the way back to my childhood. I was always taught to view Israel as a friend, an ally, and to find the common ground between US and Israeli citizens. In 2015, when I was a student in Boston, there was a lot of anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Israel protests on campus. One night, when I was in a park with my kids and family, some of these protestors harassed me for being a veteran, which was quite obvious because I wear a cap that says “Army Ranger,” and I don’t have any legs. I told my wife that I was going to go and show my support to Israel. Ultimately, I did that by volunteering in the Israeli military.

Can you tell me about your stint in Israel?

It was an incredible experience. It gave me the opportunity to see and learn firsthand what brotherhood, “achim,” as you would say, means. It’s one of the things you wouldn’t necessarily see just by reading about it. Being on the bases, working alongside the folks there, and being a part of that team, I felt that brotherhood.

I think that one of the most important things I learned from my time was not on base, but over Shabbat. There were families who hosted me for Shabbat, like they do for lone soldiers. So you go to these homes and you realize that they’re all waiting for the soldiers to come home. Every family in Israel is waiting for a son, a daughter, or a grandchild to come back. It’s the job of every young person in Israel, to go out there and to serve in Israel’s defense.

For me as a father, as much as I love the military — and I hope my kids serve in the military one day — there is no greater fear than losing one of my children. And I think that is the reality for every family in Israel.

Do you think peace is still possible in the Middle East after what we’ve seen from the Palestinians in the last few weeks?

I think peace is more likely now because of the actions of the US, making this push and declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel. As much as there are bumps in the road right now, peace is much more likely to occur because we are actually getting to a place of honesty. You can’t start a peace process from a place of a lie. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 695)