Imagine climbing an arduous 2,226 stairs up 104 stories of a soaring New York City skyscraper — one step at a time, legs locked at the knee with only your hips to advance your lower body while your shoulders pull the rest of you up along the hand rail.
“Sore” and a few hand blisters is what Rep. Brian Mast has to show for conquering One World Trade Center this past weekend. The double amputee, who lost both legs in an IED blast while deployed in Afghanistan back in 2010, took on a challenge that required more resilience than strength.
His grit comes from “the military,” he told me in a phone call, as he rode the train back from New York to D.C. “They teach you to embrace the suck.”
It was Mast’s first Tunnel to Towers Climb, but the fifth anniversary of the annual event, which brings together a thousand competitors, including first-responders, volunteer firefighters and nurses. This year, a New Orleans chef and a professional photographer made it to the top. Climbers ranged from 13 to 78 years young, traveling from nearby Canada and as far as Italy, Japan and Uganda.
The Florida Republican spent much of the climb with his buddy and fellow Afghanistan veteran Rob Jones, who lost both legs in a separate IED incident in 2010. The two got to know each other while recovering at Walter Reed, and they may soon share something else in common: According to Mast, his friend is “hopefully” eyeing a bid for Congress, in the Northern Virginia district now held by Jennifer Wexton.
Ascending alongside them was freshman Democratic Rep. Max Rose of New York, who also served in Afghanistan. All three veterans are Purple Heart recipients.
Mast raised a few hundred dollars on CrowdRise, just shy of his goal, in the run-up to the climb, which benefits the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. Named after a firefighter who lost his life in the Sept. 11 attacks, the charity helps build accessible houses for injured combat veterans — including Jones, who moved into his new home this spring.
Celebrating his veteran comrades, including those in Congress, is important to Mast. In January he tweeted out a photo of himself and new Republican members Jim Baird and Dan Crenshaw, who also survived catastrophic injuries. “5 eyes. 5 arms. 4 legs. All American,” he wrote.
Most people get out of breath climbing three flights of stairs, let alone 100. But for Mast, this weekend was an opportunity to push higher.
“I can’t tell you how many times in life where the challenge in front of you doesn’t make you want to say ‘yes’ to it, but what you get out of it when you say ‘yes’ and you push yourself through it is what makes you stronger,” he said.