Mason Rick, Assistant Bursar and 2009 alumnus, is proud to have his mug—and his story—on a bottle of Evan Williams Kentucky Bourbon. How it got there is a tale of intrigue and danger in his quest to provide clean drinking water for the Afghan villagers near his base.
Rick, a U.S. Army captain who served four years as a fire support officer, was selected as part of a nationwide campaign by the Louisville, Ky.,-based distillery to honor American service men and women as “American-Made Heroes.” The company produced a limited run of specially labeled bottles highlighting their unique stories of service.
Rick was honored for the role he played in providing clean drinking water for villagers living near his base in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, toward the end of his tour in late 2011. The people were often sickened by the polluted river they relied on for everything, including for drinking, and Rick’s team wanted to find a way to help them.
“It was a terrible cycle of people getting sick from bad water, but it was also about the political struggles between the local family leaders and the Taliban," he says. "We thought if there was a way we could empower the local leaders, then the Taliban’s influence would be greatly reduced. What better way to show the family leaders’ legitimacy than having them provide their families with the most basic human need? Water was the linchpin.”
Rick’s commander learned of a non-profit organization, Waves For Water, which specializes in providing clean water to undeveloped regions around the world. They distribute tiny filters that fit in the palm of a hand and use gravity to remove contaminants and pollutants as water flows through. They agreed to fly in with several hundred filters and train the villagers how to use them. Rick’s job was to escort the four members and their gear, including two duffel bags filled with filters, to his base.
Rick took several flights in helicopters and small planes to get to Kabul and meet the water group at the airport. All went well—until a customs agent demanded they pay tax on the filters because he claimed they were imported goods. Rick argued they were humanitarian aid not subject to taxation.
Finally, Rick reached into his pocket and pulled out a memorandum with an Army seal on it and showed it to the agent. “I told him it says we can bring these water filters in, but it really said these guys were allowed to eat at the commissary with me.”
Twenty-four hours later, they were at Rick’s forward operating base, and the men spent the next two days training village elders and Rick’s company how to use the filters properly.
“They loved it,” he says. “It was so well received, and I just pray every once in a while they are still being used and affording those people clean drinking water.”
When it was time for the men to catch their flight back to the states, Rick was their escort again. But this trip was very different—and much more risky.
About halfway, they got stuck at a base where all military flights out were full. The non-profit folks, determined not to miss their flight home, decided to take a cab to Kabul. No one takes cabs in Afghanistan, Rick told them. It’s too dangerous. But they insisted on going. Rick had no choice but to stick with them.
“I felt responsible for them,” Rick says. “A lot of that comes from our Jesuit values of solidarity and kinship. We were in this together. Good, bad or dangerous, I was all in it with these guys.”
For an artilleryman who was used to shooting 155 mm cannons, Rick felt a little under-armed with just his 9 mm Beretta for protection. As they walked out the gate and off the base, they became instant vulnerable targets for kidnappers and terrorists. The van was parked where the driver said it would be. The driver got out. He was wearing a suit. “Thirteen,” he said. It was the security number they’d been given when requesting the taxi.
They got in and started the hours-long ride to Kabul. Rick was “freaking out inside” the whole time, especially when they were stopped once and had to show their ids. “It was very nerve-wracking," Rick says. But they arrived safely at the airport.
Rick left Afghanistan a few months later but says the experience was part of the whole mission of his service there and their efforts to help the Afghan people. It’s something he began preparing for while a student at Xavier, where he adapted the University's Jesuit values into his work with the Army.
He returned to Xavier in 2013, and since joining the Bursar’s Office last year, he regularly interacts with students and works with student veterans who are using their VA education benefits to pay for their Xavier education—just like him, as he is currently pursuing his MBA at Xavier.
“My Xavier education has prepared me for a life of service,” he says. “Xavier has provided me a career and great opportunities like advocating for the staff body as a member of SAC, closely interacting with first-year students as a Goa instructor, and preserving the legacy of the University's ROTC unit by serving as the President of the Alumni Advisory Board.”
Rick was one of 10 service members recognized by Evan Williams for heroism. He learned of the project from a friend and submitted an essay about the drinking water effort in Afghanistan. When he went to Louisville in March 2016 to be interviewed and filmed for the 2016 American-Made Heroes campaign, he met Chris Ratterman, the project’s organizer, who graduated from Xavier in 2008 with a business degree.
“It was the typical small Xavier world,” Rick says. “He was the mastermind behind the whole campaign for Evan Williams.”