The US Army vet, IDF volunteer, now in Congress
WASHINGTON– He has quite the resume. Freshman Congressman Brian Mast (R-FL) served 12 years in the US Army earning a Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal, in addition to obtaining an economics degree from Harvard. For many in the Jewish community, the icing on top is that Mast volunteered with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in January 2015, packing medical kits at a military base near Tel Aviv.
However, the Florida legislator’s climb from the US Army to Capitol Hill has not been without challenges. Stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Mast lost both legs along with his left index finger in the blast. In an interview with Jewish Insider from his Congressional office, Mast focused on the high cost of war including the 67 friends he has lost while serving overseas. “I have seen the gamut of instances from friends of mine getting sprayed by automatic weapon to stepping on explosive devices, like I stepped on, to falling off the side of a mountain or a cliff. Everyone sticks out very vividly, very clearly.”
Mast has formed an especially close relationship with the Jewish community. After the interview, he showed Jewish Insider a shirt sitting in his office of the Congressman’s name written in Hebrew letters above an American flag. Calling the White House’s omission of Jews in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day a “missed opportunity,” the Florida lawmaker invoked his previous visit to the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem.
The 2014 war in Gaza strongly impacted Mast, who is married with three children. After observing anti-Israel protests in Boston during the conflict, he noted the “hypocrisy” of those demonstrating. “I said that if any of our neighbors were firing rockets into the US like that, guys like me would go and kill them immediately and every American would be proud of us for doing so.”
Already last summer, he endorsed Trump as President, even when many Republicans were fleeing from the real estate mogul. Explaining his support, Mast told Breitbart News in June, “If you have an infestation of rats and rodents in your home and you need to call the exterminator, you don’t necessarily care about the personality of the exterminator. You just care that he gets rid of infestation.”
Mast also backed the White House’s decision to place a temporary travel ban of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim nations including Iraq and Syria. With approximately 500,000 killed in Syria and 4.5 million refugees, Mast contrasted the mass exodus with how he believes Americans would have handled a similar situation. “For everybody that I know here in the US, if that (Syria) was the kind of reality that we faced, we as a people here would fight until our last breath to protect our communities. You wouldn’t see us seeking refuge somewhere else.”
The Army vet’s recent election to Congress continues his longtime service to his country. “Everyone has their place in life. Some people want to build the biggest business or save the most children. My purpose was service to this country and the military is the place that you go in my opinion to serve at the highest level for your country.”
Jewish Insider: You served for 12 years in the US military including overseas in Afghanistan. What were the most powerful moments of your service?
Congressman Brian Mast: Probably the most powerful moments that I had were those times when I lost friends — of which I lost 67 friends to date. There is undoubtedly, a cost to war, especially when you have been at it for 15 years. I have been removed from the battlefield for six years now. I have seen the gamut of instances from friends of mine getting sprayed by automatic weapon to stepping on explosive devices, like I stepped on to falling off the side of a mountain or a cliff. Everyone sticks out very vividly, very clearly.
JI: Did losing your own two legs in addition to the deaths of so many of your colleagues cause you to question the lengthy US involvement in Afghanistan?
Mast: No. The immediate time of going over there, right after the events of 9/11. A reckoning that had to happen. We were attacked and there was absolutely going to be a response to that attack. Beyond that, there have been refugee places, terrorist safe havens and terrorist training camps. And that is exactly what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11 and prior to us going into there. So, that had to be eliminated as a pipeline. One of the things that you realize as the ongoing war on terrorism is that while there should certainly be a strategy to exit these places, there also has to be a very specific strategy to maintain and not become like Iraq or Syria right now where you can say probably the biggest mistake that was ever made was withdrawing too soon and leaving a vacuum in place there that allows for the facilitation of the kind of situation that we have going on with ISIS right now.
JI: What motivated you to join the US military?
Mast: I loved the military. I knew at a very young age it was where I was going to end up. It’s what I wanted to do. It’s just the right place for me. As I always tell people, I was like a round peg in a round hole. Everyone has their place in life. Some people want to build the biggest business or save the most children. My purpose was service to this country and the military is the place that you go in my opinion to serve at the highest level for your country. So, I loved it. I knew I was going to be there.
Mast: You established a very strong connection with Israel that led you to even volunteering with the IDF. Can you describe how Israel became such an important personal cause?
I grew up in a Christian home and Christian school my whole life. I was always raised for support of Israel. It was certainly always part of my household. That doesn’t mean that I always knew why that was the case. It was just the way that I was raised. But, there was actually a very specific catalyst for me going and serving with Israel. This goes back to 2014. I was injured in 2010. This was after I was injured and out of the army. I am studying up in Cambridge and we lived right next to the Boston Commons. That summer was Operation Protective Edge, there were a lot of protests going on around the country, people that were protesting Israel for defending itself from the barrage of rocket attacks. I didn’t agree with those that were protesting Israel. It seemed completely hypocritical especially those in the US. I said that if any of our neighbors were firing rockets into the US like that, guys like me would go and kill them immediately and every American would be proud of us for doing so for defending our country in that way so it seemed like a very hypocritical, double standard.
The catalyst was one specific night when all of these protests were going on, there were people out in the Boston commons and they started saying things to me and my family, harassing us about me being a US service member which really, really struck me. It was that moment that it really sank in the parallel that exists between the United States and Israel and what we represent: those things that unfortunately become all too cliche to say, but it’s very serious to say that we do represent freedom, democracy and human rights for all people. Those are things that are not represented throughout the rest of the Middle East. Those protestors recognizing as a US service member, I fought for the exact same things that those Israeli service members were out there fighting for that instigated them to pinpoint me. It is not hard for people to figure out that I am a US Service member. I don’t have any legs and I always have that hat on that is sitting right behind you that says Army Rangers on it so most people can figure it out pretty quick. So when I saw this parallel playing out, I said to my wife that night, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I want to find a way to show my support for Israel because these people out there protesting them in the drop of a dime with no provocation decided to start harrassing us. It speaks so perfectly to how you can’t appease these ideologies of hatred.
JI: The White House issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning Jews or anti-semitism, a move widely criticized among American Jews. How do you interpret the Trump Administration’s statement?
Mast: It’s incredibly important that we do remember the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the number of survivors that we have from the Holocaust are dwindling. It was probably a mistake to not very specifically mention that. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially if it is something that falls on your heart and not go out there and speak passionately on that day.
JI: Among the Republican party there is a debate about whether to support the two state solution. What is your opinion on the issue?
Mast: I am a person that says that the future of Israel should be decided by Israel. I don’t mind the USA playing an invited role in diplomatic negotiations, but I don’t think for us to go out there and impose our will or our blueprint for peace is something that would be lasting. The blueprint for peace has to be decided by the climate in Israel and those stakeholders and come to an agreement. That involves us not playing a role or pushing for a two state solution, that is not something that I personally push for in any aspect whatsoever.
JI: So, do you believe the Palestinians should ever be granted statehood?
Mast: I don’t see a desire for them to have a state, certainly before they were to normalize their relations with the world. Do I see the need for the creation of another terrorist state in this world? Absolutely not. When you have the leaders– if you want to call it Palestine– that call for the destruction of Israel and praise the destruction of Israel and call for the same thing for the US that is not a state that I think is beneficial for us to play a hand in creating.
JI: During a House floor debate last month you said: “Palestinians [are] a group that has been historically defined by their responsibility for terror.” What did you mean by this statement?
Mast: When you look at their background and acts of terrorism: That is what they are defined by. There is a reason that you see a large fence all the way around and a guarded area throughout the area that they reside in. There was a time when that didn’t exist. Why was that fence put up? That fence was put up because of the rash of bombings that occurred. You look at their leaders. You look at the ways they praise acts of terrorism. That is what they are defined by. That has been probably one of their chief exports has been terrorism, so I think that is something that defined them as a people.
JI: Did you support President Trump’s travel restrictions including the indefinite barring of Syrian refugees from entering the United States?
Mast: Yeah. I think there is something very prudent about the US analyzing who we allow entry to in this country and how we allow entry to them. When you look at the time periods that are proposed: 90 days and 180 days, these are not big, long lasting time periods. If you look at any US government action, there are very few things that you can point to that happen in 90 or 120 days in order to do something well and do something right. So, yeah, I think it is prudent when you look at the State Department’s recommendation on travel to these countries, it’s important to ask yourself: if we don’t recommend travel there why would we necessarily want travel allowed in and that is a reason to answer those questions. People tell me, ‘well these are law abiding citizens coming from these countries,’ I think it is very important to scratch the surface of that and say what are the laws that are being adhered to when you have largely Shariah-driven countries like Iran where the execution for someone for being homosexual or the severing of limbs are things that you can still find essentially on the books. That’s what it means to be a law abiding citizen in some of these places.
It’s very hard to imagine Iraq and Syria in any semblance of what they were in the past. The kind of nation states they were in the past. It is even more difficult to imagine them returning to that kind of thing if you allow everybody that you would consider to be moderate, the kind of people you would want to build a government around, middle class people that have skills and the ability to build infrastructure in that country without those people in place and as difficult as it is to say, I think I have the ability to say this as well as anybody. I know the cost of war, I know the cost of war on myself.
What I can tell you is that for everybody that I know here in the US, if that (Syria) was the kind of reality that we faced, we as a people here would fight until our last breath to protect our communities. You wouldn’t see us seeking refuge somewhere else. That is who we are as Americans and that is part of what makes us great. If they ever want to have a kind of future for their nation states that they want to be proud of again, they have to find that resolve to stay and fight and create a kind of country they want to create just like we did during our own revolution.