A Veteran Sets His Sights on Harvard, and Congress

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Brian Mast

After losing his legs to an IED in Afghanistan, Mast set out to finish his undergraduate degree and carve out a new career for himself.

Brian Mast opened his eyes to the light of another country. He blinked, eyes focusing and fading on the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. They buzzed like bugs. Where were the mosquitos, ever present in a place like Afghanistan, bearing diseases like malaria, like yellow fever, the nets by each bedside that staved them away?

Here, the air was cold and clean, the walls lime green and somehow familiar. Where were his men? “Do you know where you are?” said a soft voice in an East Coast accent.

This other country was America. Brian looked around. His bed was bigger than a cot, smaller than a twin. How did he get here? The sheets were bright white, light on the legs. This must be a hospital.

Think back, he told himself. Retrace. Remember the last thing.

A blinding white flash

September 19, 2010, Kandahar province, his men loading him onto a chopper and rendering him one last salute. “You’re going to be OK,” someone had said.

No, back further. Operation Dragon Strike, yes: the counterinsurgency to reclaim ground in the southern provinces. His unit, part of Joint Special Operations Command comprising the most elite units in the military, had acquired the location of a high-value target.

Close to the target, he’d halted his men to search the ground at suspicious terrain. He’d looked for tripwires, batteries or signs of disturbed earth.

The helicopters had taken fire before landing. Then he’d been on the ground, moving in darkness, on point as the bomb technician sweeping for improvised explosive devices. The technical name for the job is explosive ordinance disposal, EOD.

Close to the target, he’d halted his men to search the ground at suspicious terrain. He’d looked for tripwires, batteries or signs of disturbed earth. He sensed danger but couldn’t find anything. He’d sent the signal to two snipers behind him that he was ready to forge ahead.

Then a blinding white flash burst in the pitch black. He’d been blown upwards, tumbled through the air, the wind punched out of his lungs when he landed. He could remember lying there with soot and dirt and mud caked in his eyes, seeing nothing.

He’s listening to his men through his earpiece: “EOD was hit.”

That was his call sign. That was him. He was hit.

Brian Mast stands in an archway near Harvard Yard, with cane and his two prosthetic legs

“Do you know where you are?”

His men had run to him and rendered aid, wrenching tourniquets on his legs to stop the hemorrhaging. Pain that made him dry heave, pain that pinned him in place like a baby on a table in surgery.

But somehow someone was asking him a question now, a nurse, a hospital orderly. The stranger was testing him. He didn’t know, he admitted. It was September 25, the voice told him. This was Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.

He’d lost five days. Somehow, he’d lost both of his legs just above the knee, plus a portion of his left forearm and his left index finger.

Brian, you can’t let this keep you down,” [his father] said. “You have to find a way to pull yourself up.”

Things moved ahead quickly as he processed the saving of his life, the loss of limb. His wife entered the room holding his six-month-old son, Magnum—little boy with the sky blue eyes. His father, the homebuilder who’d flown in from Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the rest of Brian’s family, wasn’t far behind them.

Brian kissed his wife, held his child and hugged his old man, who told him that he loved him. When his wife left to feed Magnum, his father spoke again.

“Brian, you can’t let this keep you down,” he said. “You have to find a way to pull yourself up and get back to work. You can’t let your kid see you sitting on your butt.”

A soldier’s resilience

The words shook him, but they shook true, like a drill sergeant screaming at him to quit. Screaming because he’s teaching you something. Screaming cause he really doesn’t want you to quit, because he wants you to outlast the pain and make it.

I have to find something new to do in life,” Brian had said himself … How could he serve his country now? What about Harvard? he thought, first as a joke. What about Congress?

This was the lesson Brian had learned enduring the highest levels of Special Operations training, months of climbing mountains and running with 50-pound packs. Tap out. Don’t tap out. Persevering meant resisting any form of self-pity.

For his 12 years in the Army, Brian had defined himself through his work. “I’m a soldier,” Brian explains. “I define myself in service to our country. That was something that I lost, basically, as a result of injury.”

At age 30, he couldn’t stand the idea of his greatest achievements, his greatest contributions, being in the past.

“I have to find something new to do in life,” Brian had said himself, “because jumping out of planes and roping out of helicopters and kicking in doors, it’s not in the future for somebody who doesn’t have any legs.” How could he serve his country now?

Committing to the best

What about Harvard? he thought, first as a joke. What about Congress? The painkillers must be working. But he knew he had a compelling story—one that could take him a lot of places.

Brian had enlisted in the US Army straight out of high school, almost a year before airliners had slammed into the World Trade Center and ignited the war that defined his military career.

I have always liked to pursue the best that I could find,” Brian says. “And it’s in that same vein that I set Harvard in my sights. You know, I wanted to go to the best university that would have me.”

He’d already earned 30 college credits through the GI Bill, taking classes at colleges nearby wherever he was stationed—courtesy of Uncle Sam. Brian knew that a bachelor’s degree in America meant more than a piece of paper. It meant citizenship in many professional circles.

According to the US Census Bureau, the average college graduate with a bachelor’s degree earned almost twice the annual salary as the average high school graduate. Ninety five percent of the members of US Congress, in fact, had at least one academic degree.

But Brian needed the best—an elite school that would give him the chance to prove his merit through current performance and provide him the flexibility to continue earning a living as a full-time breadwinner.

Then he heard about Harvard Extension School from military friends. The open-enrollment philosophy appealed to him. Much like Special Operations, anyone could audition, but only those truly up to the challenge earned the final credential.

“I have always liked to pursue the best that I could find,” Brian says. “And it’s in that same vein that I set Harvard in my sights. You know, I wanted to go to the best university that would have me.” The school would accept up to 64 credits he’d already earned, though 30 was the case for him, and the tuition would meet the terms of his GI Bill plan.

Brian laid out a plan for himself in that hospital bed. He found the time in the days between surgeries. He did it methodically, beam by beam, the way his father built homes back in Michigan.

A new stage begins at Harvard

Brian Mast exercises as part of his recovery from losing his legs to an IED

Brian spent six hours a day in physical therapy after losing his legs. Photo courtesy Brian Mast.

Brian walked into dinner that Thanksgiving in 2010 with canes supporting his prosthetic legs—just two short months after his rude awakening. He’d made rapid progress through at least six hours a day of physical therapy. This had been his goal, his first task at hand: getting the heck out of a wheelchair.

“It wasn’t pretty,” he says, though his face bore a smile at dinner that seemed to play to the cameras, as if aware that, someday, this scene could go up on a campaign poster. He looked all-American: 5'9" with olive skin, big ears, bright teeth, and a clean-shaven head.

Finally, on February 1, 2012, Brian walked out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and started a career with the Department of Homeland Security.

He’d been different back in high school: light-hearted, well-adjusted, sort of a goof. “I was not a good student,” Brian says. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work. It was simply that I was more interested in playing sports.” War made him grow up quickly.

Just a year later, like he planned, he enrolled in an online course at Harvard Extension School from his home in Palm Springs, Florida. Academia, for Brian, represented another radical shift in a life full of new normals.

He’d been different back in high school: light-hearted, well-adjusted, sort of a goof. “I was not a good student,” Brian says. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work. It was simply that I was more interested in playing sports.” War made him grow up quickly. It had sharpened his focus so much that, at 33 years of age, his value as a student could in no way be reflected by 11-year-old SAT scores and lackluster grades.

After taking a few courses online, Brian gained admission to the Extension School’s Bachelor of Liberal Arts program, concentrating in economics. Classes proved rigorous but rewarding, with his favorites being Jeffry Frieden’s International Political Economy and anything on foreign policy taught by Thomas Nichols.

Mast sits in class with Professor Tom Nichols, a guest speaker, and a fellow student

Brian enjoyed the foreign policy courses he took with Professor Tom Nichols. Above, he participates in The Crisis Game: A Cold War Nuclear Crisis Simulation.

Accustomed to military-style presentations with a heavy reliance on PowerPoint, Brian had been amazed when professors like Frieden knew their material by heart and could give lectures without any notes. “It was just nonstop him espousing facts,” Brian remembers of Frieden. Brian found himself mining those insights later on in economic, environmental, and government papers.

Frieden set an example for the level of excellence that Brian would shoot for in an Ivy League setting. After a year, Brian was pleased to say that his transcript boasted a 3.8 GPA.

In 2014, Brian spent the summer living among the brownstones of historic Beacon Hill at 101 Mount Vernon Street—his family alongside him—while taking an intensive course on campus at Harvard. He found the warm months a better time to work toward the 16 credits he had to earn on campus. Boston winters didn’t mix well with his prosthetics.

Though technology improved at a steady clip—the newest generation of legs were even waterproof—he still couldn’t handle the ice and snow of New England. On Beacon Hill, he lived up on a slope. “If I would have been here last winter,” Brian says, “it would have been impossible for me to get around. It would have been physically impossible.”

During other seasons, flexible offerings at the Extension School had been crucial in maintaining momentum: online courses, web-conference courses, and courses that met mostly online but required one weekend on campus.

While he studied, he also worked, leveraging his military expertise into a career as an explosives specialist for national security agencies. And he remained dedicated to his family, which grew in 2012, when he and his wife welcomed their second son, Maverick.

The boys were little, learning, loud from the crack of dawn until the moment they fell asleep. Brian needed them, and they needed their dad on a daily basis. And so, everyone came to Harvard with him for the summer. The whole family would often ride the T with him to campus. “Sometimes, I’ll be sitting out in Harvard Yard doing my studying, and they’ll play in the grass,” he says.

Mast with his wife and three children

Brian with his wife, Brianna, and their children Magnum, Maverick, and Madalyn

The regimen

That summer of 2014, he’d wholly dedicated himself to fulfilling the one-year foreign language requirement. He chose Spanish, mostly because it was practical for a person living in Florida, where nearly 10 percent of the population only spoke Spanish.

He hadn’t spoken a lick of Spanish since high school, and the class he signed up for had him completing the equivalent of a year’s worth of Spanish courses in two months.

Harvard advisors had tried to prepare him: every single class would be the equivalent of three days’ of class over a full year of Spanish. Imagine Spanish like a job, from 9 am to 3 pm Monday through Friday, with three days’ worth of new vocabulary and grammar points every day. That’s what he had in store: no sick days, no days off, because missing one day meant missing the same as three days’ lessons.

He perfected his regimen like a soldier. Daily he would wake at 5 am and eat breakfast. He then took the Red Line train from Charles MGH to Harvard Square, arriving on campus by 6:30. He’d find a library and study until class began at 9 am.

Facing combat, having a family, I took university with a completely different level of seriousness,” Brian says. “That made the difference for me.”

After class, he’d go to the gym for an hour as part of his required physical conditioning. He and the tutor would exercise together, speaking only Spanish for the extra hour to let the day’s lessons marinate in his brain in a context other than class.

After gym, he’d head to Widener Library, walk the stairs and study in the main reading room. Then, he’d go home, eat dinner, spend an hour or two with his family, put his kids to bed at 9 pm, and crack the books again until 11 pm. Then he’d go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.

The interior or the reading room of Widener Library, Harvard

The Loker reading room in Widener Library, where Brian likes to study while on campus

“That was the intensity of my day, every single day of that summer,” says Brian. “And that’s what it took to pass the class because it was such an intensive course.” The class size was small, intimate. He started with nine other students. Two dropped the first day,  one dropped the second day, and it started to feel a bit like Ranger training. Then it was seven students total for the duration. “Band of brothers, band of sisters,” he says.

As the summer wore on, they pulled together. “Tests and quizzes, things like that more important to the class, we would end up being in the library until two o’clock in the morning, studying and helping each other.”

He ended with an A in the class. “But that’s what it took to do so…” he says, hardly believing it. He’d gone from an apathetic high school student to a serious Harvard student. “Facing combat, having a family, I took university with a completely different level of seriousness,” Brian says. “That made the difference for me.”

Serving his country

The following summer Brian is back in Boston to complete his final on-campus courses.

He hunches over a wood-grain table in a private study room in the historic library of Quincy, Massachusetts. Textbooks and notepads surround him, spilling out of the military pack with a Punisher skull patch, which he’s carried with him everywhere from Afghanistan to Harvard.

Across the street from him is the United First Parish Church, where the remains of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams are interred. Less than a mile away is Wollaston Beach, where the gangster James “Whitey” Bulger struck his devil’s deal with FBI agent John Connolly.

Brian can recite these facts because he is a student of both the light and dark of history. Every so often, his cellphone rings, and he answers. Though this is designated “quiet space,” he’s been studying here all summer and knows that the paneling is enough to muffle the sound of his voice.

He picks up quickly because taking calls is expected for a person in the swing of a political campaign. Since declaring his candidacy for US Congress as a Republican in Florida’s Eighteenth District on June 8, 2015, he’s been working double-duty as a student in his final semesters at the Extension School and a first-time political candidate.   

[My classmates and I all] end up keeping up with each other .... because we are professionals, we end up drawing on each other for years, which is such an important part of the Harvard experience in general.”

Since his summer semester began June 20, he had just a few weeks of campaigning before whisking the family up the coast for their yearly sojourn to Boston. They found their summer condo this year in the Boston suburb of Quincy. And their family had expanded once more, this time welcoming his first daughter, Madalyn—yet another stroller on Harvard Yard. “They’ll have memories of Harvard,” says Brian of his kids, “if they don’t make their own.”

He knows his way around campus now, is a recognized sight with his twin Ottobock X3 prosthetics, grey Robocop-style appendages that each contain more CPUs than an iPhone. “I’ve been an amputee for five years now,” he says, “and there’s been a lot of advancement in the field.” Pointing to his mechanical knee, he continues, “While it doesn’t walk for me, there are microprocessors inside of it that give feedback inside and make it a much better walking leg.”

Brian Mast stands with his backpack in Harvard Yard

Brian on campus

Much like a Boy Scout with his Midwest manners, he’ll often volunteer directions and point out sites on campus to visitors. Mitt Romney went to that business school. Henry David Thoreau spent his freshman year in that hall.

Brian’s proud that his student cohort hails from all corners of the globe, much like the classmates of JFK and Romney and the countless Harvard students before them. “We end up keeping up with each other, whether it be Facebook, via e-mail,” says Brian. “But because we are professionals, we end up drawing on each other for years, which is such an important part of the Harvard experience in general.”

The race back in Florida is tight on the Republican side, with five other candidates squaring off in the primary alone, and he’s had to quit his work with federal agencies—due to a candidate requirement called the Hatch Act—to run in partisan politics.

I’m setting an example for my kids by saying you know what, I finished my degree at Harvard University,” says Brian. “Not only did I finish my degree there, but to some degree I hope that I’m teaching you that it’s never too late to redefine yourself.”

But earning the degree means just as much to him as his chances at an open seat in government. “Pursuing public office is the most non-certain thing that I could ever pursue in my life,” he says with a laugh. “Even though it’s going incredibly well, there’s absolutely nothing guaranteed about it. A Harvard degree, though, that’s in my hands.”

In spring 2016, he’s scheduled to graduate cum laude. He’ll march in Commencement with all other graduates of Harvard University.

More on Government & international relations

From the Navy to Harvard to the White House

Ted Johnson

From the Navy to Harvard to the White House

Student Success Story

One alumnus’ story of triumph at Harvard

He’ll perform the final symbolic rites of a Harvard student by waving the symbol of his school--a few stalks of wheat--as a reminder of the founding mission of the Extension School, when the gates of Harvard opened to educate the surrounding community and only cost as much as two bushels of wheat for those who could afford to pay.

It’s an honor that little more than 600 of the 19,000 Harvard Extension School students receive each year. “If Harvard was easy,” says Brian, “then everybody would do it.”

His outlook, built step-by-step from the plan he laid out in the hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, looks strong. He hopes to one day walk with that camouflage backpack into the halls of the US Capitol.

But on this particular Sunday afternoon, he buries himself in books and knuckles down to prepare for exams. “I’m setting an example for my kids by saying you know what, I finished my degree at Harvard University,” says Brian. “Not only did I finish my degree there, but to some degree I hope that I’m teaching you that it’s never too late to redefine yourself.”

— Story by Bobby Fieseler, @wordbobby

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