There were deaths, and lost limbs, and shrapnel wounds.
The injuries suffered during the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon on Monday have been compared to those often seen in a war zone.
“I’m disgusted,” said Tim Lang, an Iraqi war veteran who lost part of his right leg in combat. “It’s so senseless. It’s so stupid. I don’t care who did it. It’s evil. It’s a direct assault on freedom by cowards.”
Lang, who wears a prosthetic limb, wishes he could go to Boston to talk to the victims who lost limbs.
To encourage them.
To offer support.
“There is a huge support group, a huge network of people who have learned how to make an amputee completely comfortable and completely able to do anything you wish to do,” said Lang, 27, of Ann Arbor. “If marathon running is your thing, we will get you running again.
“You are at a dark day, or a dark night, but the sun is going to rise. Like it did for me.”
It was a long, grueling process, but Lang started to recover by playing golf. By living life. And that’s the secret to recovery for an amputee. For the country, really. Living life. Refusing to let the terrorists win.
“Let’s get up and show them that they did not defeat your spirit and they did not defeat you and they did not conquer you,” Lang said. “Even with a prosthetic, you can do anything you want to do. Just as I’m doing anything I want to do.”
The darkest times
The man with the Purple Heart and the prosthetic limb was on a golf course, hobbling through the rough, chasing his ball, fighting his demons and learning to live again.
After losing a portion of his right leg from a roadside bomb in Iraq, Lang fell into a depression. He spent almost 41/2 years at different Veterans Affairs hospitals, undergoing more than 40 surgeries. He thought everything had been taken from him. His freedom. His independence. His ability to run and play football and do martial arts.
He thought he was only part of a man.
Until he found golf.
“I felt like that’s when the true healing began,” Lang said. “It was me and nature and some golf balls and some golf clubs, chasing it around the course, by myself, seven days a week, while I’m going through one of the darkest times of my life.”
He started to get good at it, and he started to enjoy life again. To feel whole. “When I started whipping other people’s butts,” Lang said, “that competitiveness instantly fired me up.
“Golf was the thing that changed me from an injured person to a completely happy, excited individual,” Lang continued. “I feel blessed and happy. I feel capable. I feel athletic. I feel normal again.”
Mission in Iraq
Lance Cpl. Lang, a Marine reservist who grew up in Jackson, was on a patrol mission in Fallujah, Iraq, on Oct.15, 2006. He sat in a Humvee, in the turret.
“We were doing vehicle search and seizures,” Lang said. “We had intel they were bringing in new supplies to resupply Fallujah.”
The Humvee went over a roadside bomb and the explosion ejected Lang out of the vehicle. “I remember flying through the air, feeling the ungodly pressure in my stomach,” Lang said. “It was so loud you couldn’t hear.”
He saw the blue sky above — was that heaven? And the black cloud below — was that hell? “I was tasting the sourness from the gas,” Lang said. “I remember thinking, knowing, that I’d been blown up.”
He crashed to the ground, fracturing three vertebrae in his back and suffering what he calls a “mild” traumatic brain injury. “Everything went dark,” Lang said. “It felt like my leg was on fire.”
He got up and tried to run to the vehicle. He didn’t realize that the tissue at the bottom of his foot had been blown off and the bottom of his boot was missing. The bones in his foot were crushed. His ankle was broken. His leg was fractured and his knee was torn apart.
Each step pushed debris and bacteria into the open wound, and the bacteria eventually would flow through his bloodstream, causing complications in his recovery.
“I took a couple of steps and my foot just collapsed,” he said. “My foot was like a watermelon that caved in.”
He crawled back to the vehicle. Another Marine was pinned in the vehicle. “I tried to pull some of the debris away so he could breathe,” Lang said.
But he couldn’t save him.
Two Marines in the Humvee were killed, and Lang was left with questions that haunt every veteran of war: Why were they killed and he was allowed to live? What would his life become?
For a while, Lang had a hard time speaking because of the brain injury. “I had stuttering issues,” Lang said.
He suffered an infection caused by the debris in his foot, and lost more than 100 pounds, going from 225 to 109. Sarah Lang, his wife, said that he was “wasted away” and “looked like a skeleton.”
Doctors tried to save his foot and ankle but they had to amputate his leg three times because of complications. Each time taking more of his leg.
His life turned into a journey from one hospital room to the next.
But here is some good news: To this point, doctors have saved his knee. “I am happy that they were able to save my knee, which is so much better as an amputee,” Lang said. “You have so much more mobility when you have a knee.”
Lang was told that he can never run again because the compression could cause more problems and he would be in danger of losing his knee. “Not being able to run, laying on your back in a hospital bed, makes you feel less of a human being,” he said. “It’s a state of depression that you don’t even realize that you are in.”
He was not the person that his wife had once met. The fun-loving, energetic guy. “He kind of crawled in a hole,” Sarah Lang said.
Everything changed when Lang met Jim Estes, a golf instructor from Maryland, who was visiting vets at a VA hospital.
Estes offered to teach Lang how to golf. Free lessons. Free time on the range through the Salute Military Golf Association program, which Estes started in 2006.
Lang thought: Yeah, right. Golf is for sissies.
Lang had golfed once or twice with friends, but had never played 18 holes. “I told him that I wasn’t interested,” Lang said, “because golf was the wimpiest sport in my mind.”
Months later, Estes returned.
Same offer. By this time, Lang was deeper in depression.
“That was probably the darkest of my days,” Lang said.
So one day in 2008, Lang took Estes up on his offer and went to the driving range. “It was the most liberating feeling that I had felt in so long,” Lang said.
He went back. Again and again. And he was hooked. He practiced so much that he got blisters on his hands.
“I felt pure liberation,” Lang said. “I was on my own, doing something without anybody having to help me. I was able to get back on my feet and work as hard as I wanted. I started enjoying life again. I was taking pride in what I was doing.”
Suddenly he was excited to get out of bed again, rushing to therapy so he could spend more time golfing. And that injured Marine started to heal deep inside.
“Golf did everything for me, to be honest with you,” Lang said. “Until I started golfing, I didn’t realize how depressed I actually was.”
Lang tries to golf every day, but that’s not always possible in Michigan.
“I’m getting close to being a scratch golfer,” Lang said. “I’m single digit, probably around a 2 right now, if I’m playing like I can.”
But he still has problems with his back. “When I’m healthy or feeling good, I’m able to golf amazing,” Lang said.
The other big problem is his leg. When he stands on his prosthetic for too long, which is just about every day when he’s practicing, he develops blisters on his leg. “That part of your leg is not meant to weight-bear,” he said.
But he will live with a few blisters. Because he loves golf. He loves the challenge. He sees other golfers get frustrated, slapping their clubs after a bad shot, and he is just happy to be there. Out playing. Being alive.
“Golf is not for the feint of heart,” Lang said. “That’s why I like it.”
Sarah Lang, 25, who works as a waitress and exercise physiologist, has seen a huge change in her husband.
“Once he found golf, it got him into the real world again,” she said. “Now he’s happy and energetic again.”
Tim Lang credits his wife for sticking by his side, through all the surgeries and long hospital stays.
“I got a Purple Heart for what I went through,” said Lang, who is medically retired from the Marines and draws a monthly disability check from the VA. “She deserves a medal for everything she did for me.”
The man with the Purple Heart and the prosthetic leg walked around Washington on Tuesday, sharing his story with anybody who would listen.
Lang was a small part of a massive lobbying push to inform legislators about golf’s economic and charitable contributions. Lang’s trip was sponsored by a lobbying group that represents nearly every facet of the golf industry, from equipment manufacturers to the PGA of America.
Lang spoke to at least 10 members of Congress, sharing his story.
“Tim was amazing,” said Gretchen Hamm, executive director of Salute Military Golf Association, a nonprofit based in Maryland.
Hamm’s organization has a noble goal: to help veterans.
So far, it has helped about 2,000 vets. But it’s expanding at a rapid pace.
“We are looking to build a national network that can support these wounded veterans, as they retire, as the war winds down,” Hamm said. “These are young men and women. They will need our program for 30 or 40 years.”
Lang attends Eastern Michigan University and is majoring in criminal psychology. His dream is to make the PGA Tour.
“I wouldn’t bet against him,” Estes said.
If that falls through, Lang hopes to work for the CIA or FBI.
Most of all, he wants to help others.
Whether that means people who were injured in Iraq or in Boston.
“I’m going to do everything I can to help those who are in that dark grip of depression, in the grasp of that thing they can’t control,” he said. “I will make them realize, ‘Hey, everybody has hurdles to jump and mountains to climb.’
“It’s all about how you respond to adversity. That’s golf in a nutshell. How are you going to respond to adversity? Are you going to get yourself off your butt and go and do something better?”