Sean Lewis enlisted in the Army on his 17th birthday, in 2001. In 2003 he was part of the first ground landing in Iraq. In January 2004, a mortar blasted his right leg off. Shrapnel put a hole in his left one. The first thing Lewis did when hit was see how his men were; survey the damage.
Army Staff Sgt. Dan Nevins (retired); age: 34. Sgt. Sean Lewis (retired); age: 23. You will know them by their stories. You should know them.
"One PFC, most of his body blew up all over me. Another one, his body was cut almost in half. I heard him gurgle; he reached out, and died. Then I saw my leg. It was six feet away from me." - SEAN LEWIS
He was about 5-2, 95 pounds in high school, in Indiana. He wanted to play football. The coach told him to take a hike. One day in gym class he was playing rugby and put a hit on a kid twice his size. He was the captain of the rugby team. "You got a heart, don't ya?" he said to the skinny kid. "Why don't you come out for rugby?" The year was 1997.
Sean Lewis enlisted in the Army on his 17th birthday, in 2001. In 2003 he was part of the first ground landing in Iraq. In January 2004, a mortar blasted his right leg off. Shrapnel put a hole in his left one. The first thing Lewis did when hit was see how his men were; survey the damage. That's what an NCO was supposed to do; take care of his men. "We're all brothers," says Lewis. How were they doing? They were dying around him. And on him.
Slowly, surreally, Lewis undersood how badly he was injured. He was bleeding wildly from the neck and both legs, or what remained of the the right one.
Then: "I reached down in my pants and starting counting. To make sure it was still all there." His sexual organs. Check.
There was no stretcher. Six soldiers picked Lewis up and loaded him on a truck. Six still alive, several dead, their leader bleeding all over. Brothers all.
It took seven days to get Lewis to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., because of bad weather. Four days in Germany, three days in an Air Force facility in Illinois, first. He was at Walter Reed for 15 months.
"I wanted to be in the Army for 30 years," he says. "Be a Command Sgt. Major." But when they told him he could never return to the fields of battle, where he "could take care of my soldiers," he took medical retirement last year, at the age of 22.
He has a prosthetic limb, but he plays golf anyway. "I hated golf. I never played. I thought it was stupid." Then he met Bill Bartlett, an avid golfer, and a Vietnam vet. He talked Lewis into trying. "The first time I played, I got real frustrated," says Lewis. "I said some choice words. Then I took off the prosthetic and threw it aside." And played on.
On one leg, the one shrapnel put a hole in. But he plays. "I can stand on one leg all day," he says. "I don't have any problem with balance."
He's 5-10 and a skinny 155. According to Lewis you feel nauseous, not hungry, when you go through the surgeries and morphine and swallow all the meds they dump in you. "My right leg was 25 pounds." Gone. Some diet, huh? He'd been up to 180 as a fit soldier. "I looked like a G.I. Joe action figure." Now his goal is to get up to 160 pounds. Nobody's betting against him.
Thursday, Lewis and Nevins played a round with pro Larry Nelson at Nashawtuc Country Club where the Bank of America Championship started Friday. Lewis and Nevins are involved with the Wounded Warrior Project, in partnership with Disabled Sports USA.
Lewis didn't want to get involved with all this, didn't know what he could really do. "I hated talking to the press" about what happened in Iraq, and about the prosthetic. But his wife, Cindy - "my strongest support" - helped convince him that it could lead to more support for the Wounded Soldier Project, not to mention how his story could inspire amputees to "get off the couch and try," says Lewis.
He loves golf now, says he could play it every day. His wife loves the game; 7-year-old son Jerred, too. Sean Lewis has a life. The heartache, the memories don't diminish. He's still a soldier. Remember, he wanted to be a 30-year man. But he has a life!
"If I know anything about tomorrow, I know I'll have pain." - Dan Nevins
Nevins was in the Army for 14 years, with eight years of active duty. Then he went to Iraq. In November, 2004, he was in his jeep on a rough road. An IED went off under the vehicle. He lost his left leg, below the knee. The right leg was a mess. Now it hurts so much "I think about chopping it off," he says.
He has a prosthetic left leg. He spent 18 months at Walter Reed, "the first four flat on my back." His damaged right leg has been operated on 27 times. "Surgery every other day," says Nevins. "Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday." Until they got to 27. Then rehab for a year.
Then came the fear, the doubt, when it was time to leave the hospital. "The hardest transition was going from the hospital to civilian life. Just trying to stand up was horribly painful." The right leg was swollen, purple. It still had open wounds, pins coming out of it and ... horrible. Could he bear people staring at him, or trying not to?
Welcome to civilian life.
He had to get acquainted with the prosthetic. The pain was a constant presence. "I don't think I ever got discouraged," says Nevins. "I accepted that it was going to be painful, and take a long time." Encouragement came from Laura Friedman, his therapist at Walter Reed. He learned - practiced really - to rely on his hips and thighs for mobility. He had no push off the good leg, as it were. "It's like walking on two prosthetics."
But he's decided to not have the "good" leg amputated. "Maybe they'll come out with some great surgery," he says. As for the pain, "it's part of my life." Just as the prosthetic is, which can act up at times. "I'm always bumping into things with it, and getting it caught in things."
He was 26 when he played golf for the first time. He played only a few times, but he could hit it off the tee a ton. Otherwise, he was terrible. The fun part was drinking beer with his pals at the 19th hole. Now he's playing again, at the suggestion of his therapist. "It was just a nonchalant conversation," says Nevins. They were watching the Booz Allen tournament on TV at the time.
Nevins lives in Florida with his wife, Nicole, and 13-year-old daughter, Karyssa. He signed on with the Wounded Warrior Project and has traveled with the PGA Tour as manager of Community Outreach, a group which works with the Department of Defense and the PGA for fundraising purposes to help military families. Yesterday, the gig took him to Nashawtuc. "I try to play once a week," he says. "Realistically, I'd like to play two or three times a week." That's a big stretch.
"The golf course is where I forget my pain, and everything that bothers me. It's a great escape."
There are plenty of things that bother him. Where to start? Iraq? "I had a friend who was killed in the same accident," he says, slowly becoming emotional. "I'm alive. Living. Breathing. Playing golf. It could be a whole lot worse."
Take it from someone who has seen the worst, and still feels it.
(Lenny Megliola is a MetroWest Daily News columnist. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org)