A survivor’s victory: Brussels bombing victim Mason Wells graduates from the U.S. Naval Academy

Life for newly commissioned U.S. Navy officer Mason Wells could aptly be described as fluid. Change is everywhere for the 24-year-old sailor.

On Friday, May 28, Wells became a 2021 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He exchanged the midshipman’s shoulder boards on his uniform for the bold, single-striped shoulder boards of a Navy ensign. And after four years of saluting every officer he passed outdoors, he’s now on the receiving end of a few salutes. 

He is also changing his mailing address from Annapolis, Maryland, to Pensacola, Florida, where he will soon begin pilot training. Even his marital status is changing. In a few days he will wed fellow Navy grad Cassidy Hylton — whom he baptized — in the San Diego California Temple. 

But some things won’t change. The scars on Wells’ hands and feet will remain regardless of whatever his new title — Naval Academy graduate, ensign, pilot or husband. And he will forever be called a “survivor.”

Latter-day Saints worldwide first learned of Elder Mason Wells in the days following the March 22, 2016, terrorist bombings in Brussels, Belgium. The then-19-year-old Utahn and three of his fellow missionaries — his companion Elder Dres Empey, Sister Fanny Clain, and senior missionary Elder Richard Norby — were seriously injured at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem.

Mason Wells, left, and his former missionary companion, Joseph Empey, together at the University Hospital in Salt Lake City. Both young men were injured in the Belgium terrorist airport bombing while serving as missionaries.
Mason Wells, left, and his former missionary companion, Joseph Empey, together at the University Hospital in Salt Lake City. Both young men were injured in the Belgium terrorist airport bombing while serving as missionaries. Credit: Charlie Ehlert

Wells would spend two months in hospitals in Belgium and Utah, undergoing more than a half-dozen surgeries and procedures. His convalescence exacted physical and emotional pain. One doctor told the former high school athlete that he would never run properly again.

Wells shrugged him off. He was, after all, the grandson and great-grandson of U.S. Marines. One grandfather was a Purple Heart recipient. Another stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima. Wells was determined to etch his own name into his family’s legacy of military service. 

His dream was to become a pilot.

“Ever since I was in junior high,” he told the Church News in 2017, “I’ve known exactly what I wanted to do.”

Just a year after the 2016 bombing, Wells was inducted into the Navy and began his studies at the storied service academy built at the confluence of the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis. 

Clinging to faith in Christ

A two-word phrase is often used to describe the United States Naval Academy: Not College.

While students at the 176-year-old institution do work toward a four-year bachelor’s degree, their primary purpose is to be trained to lead sailors and Marines. A midshipman is required to master chemistry and calculus, run mile after mile and learn the essentials of sea navigation — all in a highly structured military environment.

In the days leading up to Friday’s graduation, Wells reflected on the trials he faced in Annapolis and beyond.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy on May 28, 2021, U.S. Navy Ensign Mason Wells will begin pilot training in Florida. Wells was injured in the 2016 Brussels terrorist bombing while serving his mission.
After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy on May 28, 2021, U.S. Navy Ensign Mason Wells will begin pilot training in Florida. Wells was injured in the 2016 Brussels terrorist bombing while serving his mission. Credit: Provided by Mason Wells

“There were times, both in my recovery [from the bombing] and at the Naval Academy, where it was difficult to maintain a positive attitude,” he said. “But it’s during those times, when we feel like we’re at our lowest, that we have the chance to be brilliant. The chance to be great.”

For Wells, 2021 will be a year marked by highlights, memories and realized goals. But he admits that few things were certain in the weeks and months following the 2016 Brussels bombing.

“But the one thing I was always certain about is that I would cling to my faith in Jesus Christ,” he said. “And then I decided that I would control all other outcomes to the best of my ability. I would put 100% effort wherever I could.”

Wells also drew upon the hopeful faith that fortified him while serving in the France Paris Mission. He was determined to pursue his own goals and determine the “ceilings” of his possibilities.

“I trusted in the plan of salvation and trusted that God was always willing to make up the difference in areas where we fall short. … Regardless of the things that we can and can’t control, the trajectory really depends upon us.”

Freshman year at the Academy is a grind for new midshipmen. There is much to learn. There are few privileges. But Wells calls his own plebe year a blessed time. It was the academic year where he met Cassidy Hylton, a fellow plebe from Southern California. The two were introduced in the room of a mutual friend at Bancroft Hall, the sprawling dormitory that every Mid at the Academy calls home.

The two quickly became friends. But when they began dating, Hylton articulated one demand:

“I told Mason, ‘Look, I know all about the Church. Don’t try to convert me. I’m not interested. All my friends from high school are members, and I’ve already met with the missionaries’.”

By their sophomore year, the two had become a couple. Hylton often accompanied her new boyfriend to family home evenings and Sunday Church services. Sometimes they watched Church videos together in the homes of members.

One evening following a small Church social gathering, Hylton and Wells walked back to Bancroft Hall together. She quietly told him she was ready to meet with the missionaries. Wells joined in each of the discussions, but was careful to allow the missionaries to perform their sacred calling to teach.

Hylton accepted the missionaries’ baptismal invitation. She asked Wells to perform the ordinance. Hylton’s mother, Amy Fender, flew to Maryland to witness her daughter’s Jan. 12, 2019, baptism.

“My heart was open to the gospel before I even met with the missionaries. … Heavenly Father knew that I needed something stronger to fall back on than what I had before,” Hylton said. “I needed the gospel.”

Hylton soon learned that even the newest Latter-day Saint is needed. Before she could even celebrate the first anniversary of her baptism, she was serving as the Relief Society president in the Annapolis YSA branch that meets at the Academy.

“I was thrown to the wolves,” she said, laughing. “But our group of Latter-day Saint midshipmen is really strong, and we’ve all grown together. Our Relief Society is small, but they are all amazing women. And the senior missionaries in the branch have offered us another level of support that you would have never expected at the Academy.”

Branch President Joe DuPaix said Wells and Hylton have played essential roles in helping the young branch to succeed. And, he added, each completes the other.

“They are a great fit,” he said. “Mason and Cassidy lean on each other. Cassidy always brings out the best in Mason. … And he’s got a great brain for the scriptures and a strong testimony.

“It is neat just to see how they connect.”

After her baptism, Wells and Hylton continued dating, and eventually Wells proposed. Marrying a fellow Naval Academy midshipman is challenging. Graduates are required to serve at least five years of active duty in their assigned service communities in the Navy or Marine Corps after commissioning.

Soon after marrying and enjoying a Hawaiian honeymoon, the Wellses will report to their respective duty stations. While he is undergoing flight training in Pensacola, she will begin serving as the weapons officers aboard the USS Indianapolis, a littoral combat ship homeported in Mayport, Florida.

“We’ve had to come to terms with the fact that we’re going to be separated,” said Wells. “But that separation does not have to determine the strength of our relationship. Every new day will be another day to strengthen our marriage.”

Being married to a fellow naval officer also offers the couple a connection they would not enjoy if they were wed to civilians, added Hylton. “We will be able to always relate to what the other is going through. I think that will be a strength for us.”

Innumerable prayers

Like her son Mason Wells, Kymberly Wells is an athlete.

So whenever she visits him in Annapolis, Kymberly Wells takes advantage of the many waterfront running paths and roads bordering the Academy. A few days ago, she was traversing a bridge offering a spectacular view of the campus. 

“I suddenly felt a strong impression to stop on that bridge and offer a prayer of gratitude,” she said. “I got emotional realizing that Mason had made it through these hard years. I was filled with so much gratitude that I had to thank my Heavenly Father.”

Kymberly Wells and her husband, Chad, say their understanding of prayer and gratitude would deepen to new levels after receiving the horrific news in 2016 that their missionary son was among the many victims of the Brussels bombing.

Newly commissioned U.S. Navy Ensign Mason Wells outside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, with his parents, Chad and Kymberly Wells, on May 28, 2021. Mason were seriously injured in a 2016 terrorist bombing while serving as a missionary in Belgium.
Newly commissioned U.S. Navy Ensign Mason Wells outside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, with his parents, Chad and Kymberly Wells, on May 28, 2021. Mason were seriously injured in a 2016 terrorist bombing while serving as a missionary in Belgium. Credit: Provided by Chad Wells

The Wellses endured dark days in the tragedy’s aftermath.  

“There were times when I wondered, ‘How is Mason going to heal? Will he ever run again?’” said Chad Wells. “And now Mason’s running a six-minute mile here at the Academy. That’s a miracle.

“To watch the mercies of God, and the blessings that have come to us, are staggering.”

Studying at the U.S. Naval Academy was one of Mason Wells’ lifelong dreams, his father added. “For him to overcome the tragedy of the bombing and now graduate from the Academy is also a miracle of pure perseverance.”

Kymberly Wells said her testimony of prayer was also a sustaining miracle. She and Chad remain humbled knowing of the many people who petitioned the Lord on behalf of their family. They discovered strength in the countless prayers of intercession from friends and strangers of all faiths and backgrounds.

“I truly believe that Mason’s success in graduating and realizing this victory comes because of the prayers and blessings that we received from so many people from across the world,” said Chad Wells. “Without those prayers, we are not sure we would be here today.”

Kymberly Wells added she can never repay the kindness that so many offered to her child. “I will never know of all of the people that prayed, fasted and performed service because of Mason.”

After Friday’s graduation and commissioning, Mason Wells transitions into his military career as a naval officer and future aviator. But for Richard Norby and his wife, Pam, Wells will forever remain the engaging, focused young elder that they came to know and love while serving together as missionaries in Europe.

Long before the bombing, Richard Norby, a retired seminary teacher, recognized in young Elder Wells a maturity that proved essential in his recovery from the bombing.

Both men carry scars that were caused by hate. But Norby is quick to add that neither he nor his young friend will be defined by the Brussels bombing. 

Mason Wells is pushed by his father, Chad, as the recently released Latter-day Saint missionary returns home and welcomed by friends and family in Sandy, Utah, on Thursday, April 28, 2016. He spent 37 days in hospitals after being injured in the Brussels terrorist attack.
Mason Wells is pushed by his father, Chad, as the recently released Latter-day Saint missionary returns home and welcomed by friends and family in Sandy, Utah, on Thursday, April 28, 2016. He spent 37 days in hospitals after being injured in the Brussels terrorist attack. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The most important moments of Wells’ life are ahead of him, said Norby. “I know Mason’s journey is just beginning.” 

Like Norby, Wells regards his own bomb scars as the marks of a survivor. “Every new day is a blessing,” he said. “My injuries are not the defining aspect of my life. I’m defined by the choices I make every day.”

It is common for sailors embarking upon a voyage to wish one another luck with the nautical phrase “Fair Winds and Following Seas.”

U.S. Navy Ensign Mason Wells has navigated headlong through dark, violent storms. But he moves forward — propelled by tenacious hope, the love of his future bride and his family and the prayers of friends, fellow missionaries and strangers. 

Now Wells has what ancient sailors always wished for. The wind is at his back.