News: EOD Wounded Warrior looks to future education and career
ABERDEEN, Maryland - Staff Sgt. Brian Mast, an explosive ordnance disposal technician who lost both his legs and an index finger after an enemy IED attack in Afghanistan last year, charts his course of recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
As Staff Sgt. Brian Mast moves his bodybuilder-like frame across the Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s Military Advanced Training Center, he exudes a quiet confidence – the kind of confidence that makes him an outstanding Soldier and an excellent explosive ordnance disposal technician. The kind of confidence that is essential to the process of learning how to walk again.
Mast, a Grand Rapids, Michigan native who joined the Army Reserves in 2000 as a combat engineer until deciding to become an EOD tech, suffered catastrophic injuries including the loss of both his legs and an index finger as well as a broken arm and other injuries as the result of an improvised explosive device attack on Sept. 19, 2010 in southern Afghanistan. At the time, Mast was serving with the Special Operations Command in Afghanistan where he and his fellow members of EOD teams saved countless lives disrupting and disposing of the deadly IEDs used by the insurgency.
The horrible events of that day in September would change the path of the married father’s life in a myriad of ways. This new personal odyssey would take Mast from Afghanistan through Germany and back to the United States to Walter Reed Army Medical Center all the way to the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
Mast’s efforts would soon transition from learning everything he could about the composition of enemy bombs, rockets, missiles, projectiles and grenades to learning how to walk on state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs, healing his other injuries and charting a new course for his professional life. Although his mission has changed, he would approach these new challenges with the same attention to detail, enthusiasm, and determination that he had always employed as a soldier.
In the first days on the road to recovery, Mast realized having other servicemembers rehabilitating side-by-side next to him was a source of comfort.
“I never thought it would be easy but seeing the guys walking around here made me think it was not going to be as hard as it was,” Mast said.
He marveled at the way the men and women in the MATC progressed from crawling to walking. Then it came time for Mast to take his first steps on his new legs. As he clutched onto the parallel bars used in the MATC to help the injured learn how to walk again, Mast struggled to find his comfort zone.
“I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t even balance; I had to have someone under each arm holding me up and it was one of the most helpless feelings,” he said. “I can honestly say that if I hadn’t seen everybody at all these different stages [of rehabilitation], I probably would have thought in my mind ‘I am never going to walk again. This is not going to happen.’”
With the ever-present encouragement of the staff and patients at Walter Reed, Mast mustered his strength and pushed through with his rigorous training.
“By the end of that day, I was able to stand up,” he said. “So by the next day, I was able to stand there and play catch with somebody. You see the progression each day.”
Mast insists that the rehabilitation process is more about the person’s character and inner strength than just about doctors and medical treatment.
“I think what people do in here reflects how they were previous to their injury,” Mast, who was always enthusiastic about physical fitness even before his days in the Army, said. “I always tried to do my best, whatever it is. Whatever field I have been in; who doesn’t want to be the best? I try and apply that here.”
For Mast, being the best means a total commitment to the rehabilitation process and that means a full day of vigorous workouts and training every day.
“It’s my job, I get in here at eight or nine in the morning and stay until four in the afternoon,” he explained. “Just like I would in the military, I put in the hours and I learn to walk every day.”
Mast explained that on average it takes more than 10,000 hours of training to attain the necessary skills to walk again and he is emphatic about the need to take training serious.
“Well, if you are only in here an hour a day, then it’s going to take you a lot longer than if you put in eight hours a day,” he said. “At Walter Reed, pretty much everybody tries their hardest every day. But it’s really up to the individual. It’s one of those ‘you can lead a horse to water’ kind of things.”
The support outside the physical rehab process has been extremely uplifting for Mast, his wife and his son who recently turned 1-year-old. He realized the level of support in the first few hours after regaining consciousness at Walter Reed. In addition to his wife, parents and two sisters, Mast was deluged with visitors eager to express their well wishes for him and his family.
“When I woke up, there was a line out my door,” Mast recalled. EOD techs from all the services inside the Department of Defense as well as bomb techs from other government agencies would swing by Mast’s room to pay their respects and offer their encouragement.
The Special Operations Command also supplied Mast and his family a furnished apartment in the Washington area and made sure the family was well cared for in all respects.
“Anybody in the world of special operations also came by and said ‘I hope you’re all right and if there is anything you need just let me know,” he said.
The soldier was told by nearly everyone he met that if he ever wanted anything at all, just call. Visitors would slip him their business card and tell him to just give them a call if he wanted anything. Mast said he chalked most of these assertions and offers up to people being friendly, until the day he made a passing reference about the desire to attend a rather exclusive event in Washington.
“I told my wife, ‘you know what, I really want to go to the State of the Union address,’” Mast said. However, at the same time, Mast and his wife had decided to sell their house near Fort Bragg, N.C. So in the last weeks of January, the Mast family loaded up their car and headed down to North Carolina to sell their house and take care of other business.
“We were on the way there and we got a call and were told ‘the Obamas would like to invite you to be their guests at the State of the Union,’ it was completely random, we hadn’t called anybody,” Mast explained.
The family was flown back up from Fort Bragg to Washington and put up at a hotel next to the White House.
“It was very nice. We met the Obamas and they were very nice. Mrs. Obama is very tall. We had met the Bidens before; they had us over to the Vice President’s residence for Thanksgiving,” Mast recalled. “I met a lot of congressmen from the various states that I have lived in because I can claim Michigan, Florida, and North Carolina. There was a lot of standing up and down which is tough for me with two prosthetics but it was worth it.”
Mast’s infant son Magnum even had his own team of White House interns that watched him while his parents were attending the speech.
The outpouring of support is not limited to the political world of Washington, Mast said.
“The city of DC has been incredibly supportive on the whole. When you are in a big city, there is always the hustle and bustle but with all that is going on here, when someone sees you and sees that you are a Wounded Warrior, no matter how busy they are, they all stop and say thank you or open a door for you,” Mast said.
One particular group has been a constant source of encouragement and support, according to Mast.
“You really see a lot from the Vietnam Veterans. You see them around town when you’re out just buying something or they come through the hospital. They always talk about how things were when they came back and I have never met one who was disgruntled about how we’re treated compared to how they were treated,” Mast said. “All they want is to make sure we are not treated the same way. They say ‘hey, this is a new generation and we’re not going to let happen to them what happened to us. They’re not angry and they’re not jealous.”
This kind of bond between the veterans of the nation’s wars is important particularly in a country where less than one percent of its citizens currently serve in uniform and where most American families have little or no ties to the military.
Mast and his family are now ready to make the transition back the civilian world and he is looking forward to the next phase of his life.
“Right now, I am working on getting into Georgetown University. I am hoping to go there in the summer,” he said. “I figure I will be here until this time next summer doing therapy.”
Mast said he had entertained the thought of continuing his career as a soldier but ultimately decided that he wanted to pursue other opportunities.
“I like the Army. I have always liked the Army and I have always loved the military; I was like a round peg in a round hole. It was always easy for me. I liked doing EOD because it was mentally challenging; it’s a field that is continually changing and you learn a lot in the field,” he said. After lengthy discussions with his wife, they made the decision to pursue a career outside the military.
U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Brant Shyrigh of the 28th EOD Company, 192nd Ordnance Battalion and a friend of Mast’s, said he was sorry to see a soldier like Mast leave the Army.
“I guess you could say that Staff Sgt. Mast is a ‘plank owner’ in our organization; he’s been there from the start,” Shyrigh said. “There is nothing he can’t do. That guy is just sheer determination. He is a super guy and I think anyone could learn from him. He was always grinning from ear-to-ear.”
Shyrigh said Mast’s perpetual optimism and determination are the reasons why he has been successful in the recovery process so far.
“I was there to receive him when he arrived at Walter Reed,” Shyrigh said. “After he started to recover a little we were talking and he said ‘Top, I got it. There is no use crying or being upset, I got this.’ Even when he was telling me this, he had that huge grin on his face. I wish he was staying in because I would definitely have him working for me again.”
Mast said that in addition to his education, he would like to pursue a career in the federal government.
“I like federal service. I would like to find something with the Transportation Safety Administration in the airports or DEA or FBI,” Mast explained.
In addition to his physical rehabilitation and planning for the future, Mast said he was making emotional adjustments to life after his injury.
“My wife and I were very prepared for me to expire. She knew my wishes, she knew what I wanted. We were well aware that was a possibility,” he said. “You never think about well, this is what we are going to do if I come back without two legs and a finger.”
There are also the normal adjustments that many soldiers and families go through after deployments like getting back to normal routines with their spouse and children.
Shyrigh said the courage and strength displayed by Mast’s wife, Brianna, was inspiring.
“His wife has really held the family together and that is a strong woman. She is a rock,” Shyrigh said. “Bri has really shored up that family.”
Mast said the open communication between he and his wife has been a critical component to his continual recovery.
“Sometimes you have to talk about things with your wife when you’re behind closed doors. You talk about things and you work on it,” Mast said. “It helps me and my wife together. She now knows more about what I have gone through and it helps her understand.”
Date Posted:03.24.2011 09:40
Location:ABERDEEN, MD, US
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