September 19, 2010, began like many others but changed my life forever. I was serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan. As the lone bomb technician, it was my job to clear the way.
I was almost certain that there were bombs buried in the area. On the near side of a river bank, I got down on my hands and knees. I started to look for batteries and wires or other signs of disturbed earth. I got to the far side of the bank, and I didn’t find or see anything. As I stood up to give our two snipers the signal that I was going to move ahead, a bomb ripped through my legs and the left side of my torso.
When I woke up in Walter Reed Army Medical Center about a week later missing both of my legs and a finger, I didn't know what the future would hold. I had to confront the reality that I'd never be an asset on the battlefield again.
But then my dad gave me the most important piece of advice I’ve ever received:
“Brian, I love you. I’m glad you’re OK. I’m glad you’re alive,” he told me. Then, with his eyes still welled up, he said very seriously, “You can’t let this keep you down. You’ve got to find a way to get out there.”
With that advice in mind, slowly, I was able to get out of bed. I learned to walk. I learned to run. Over time, I was able to play around with my kids again.
I’ve always tried to show my kids that it’s possible to overcome adversity. I’ve tried to teach them that they can achieve anything to which they truly dedicate themselves. I’ve tried to exemplify strength, even when I did not feel strong inside.
I need my family to see and never forget why I have tears every Memorial Day.
I do not regret one moment that I spent in combat. Every second was spent working toward the worthiest possible cause: service to my brothers and service to the United States of America.
But, I do have regrets. Every year, I attend Memorial Day ceremonies back home in Florida. On Memorial Day in 2013, I made a request of my wife Brianna that I have come to deeply regret. That year, I asked that she stay home with our two little boys so that I could attend the ceremonies by myself.
I made this selfish request because I didn’t want my boys to see me in pain, and I didn’t want my wife to have to answer the question, “why is Daddy crying?”
I regret this moment, because at the time, I mistook those tears for weakness. I now realize that those tears represent strength.
My boys and my new baby girl need to see my emotion for each person who gave the last beat of their heart to defend our freedom. I want them to know why I sometimes can’t even say the word Taps and why my eyes might start welling up when I see a military funeral on the news.
They need to see this emotion because they need to know that there were brave men and women who showed strength, courage and patriotism with every bit of life they had so that my children may live free. They need to see this emotion so they know that they are blessed beyond words to be citizens of the greatest country on Earth.
I want them to know that there has been a high cost paid for all that makes this country great. The limitless opportunity that my children will enjoy in life was paid for with the blood and spirit of men and women who traded their own lives to fulfill an oath to the United States of America.
Every single veteran has carried a burden for our country. We have carried the burden of missing births, birthdays and ball games. We have held the lives of our friends and the lives of our enemies in our hands. And because we are the lucky ones—the ones who came home—we get to watch our families grow and pass these lessons on to our children.
As of today, I have lost more brothers than I can count in our theaters of war, some of them in my arms. I remember them all like it was yesterday: their smiles, the jokes we would play on each other, the pictures of their family that they would carry with them and the letters that those of us who were fortunate enough to survive delivered to those families when they were killed.
In their memory, I need my family to see and never forget why I have tears every Memorial Day. I want my kids to grow up honoring these men and women who will never be able to give their child a hug again. And I want them to know that it is strong and honorable to have the courage to mourn.
We have been given the gift of life, so please join me in memory of the absolute best men and women that each of us has ever known and in celebration of the freedom they sacrificed to protect.
Brian Mast is the Republican U.S. Representative for the 18th District of Florida. He served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2011.