For as long as Rick Lang can remember he has had two aspirations: flying planes and becoming a doctor.
At 34, Lang who flew F/A-18 fighter jets while serving in the Navy has one securely tucked into his bucket list. A new journey as a first-year medical student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School began last month for the navy veteran – one of only 60 veterans from across the country selected as a 2015 Tillman Scholar – that now allows him to set his sight on the second.
“This is the culmination of all of the experiences in my life so far,” says Lang who spent more than a decade after graduating from the Naval Academy in Annapolis as an FA-18 pilot serving with west-coast based fighter squadrons, as a Naval Top Gun instructor, and as an advisor attached to a west-coast based Navy SEAL team. “What I want to do now is to continue my service to the community by becoming a doctor and providing the care to others that allowed me to become a pilot.”
Lang was born with a birth defect known as syndactyly, a webbing of his fingers on his left hand. By the time he was 6, a gifted surgeon had performed four surgeries that separated his fingers, restored functionality to his hand and helped him to fulfill his dreams.
“It didn’t occur to me until much later just what he did,” says Lang, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “When it was determined that my strength and dexterity was fine, and that I should be able to fly, I knew what an incredible gift that surgeon had given to me when I was a child.”
It was then, as a senior getting ready to graduate from the Naval Academy in 2003, that Lang knew he would be able to leave Annapolis and spend the next decade as a navy pilot. When his military service was finished in 2015, Lang did a little soul searching, thinking back to his childhood when he first thought he might want to be a doctor.
The surgeon who fixed his hand and his late grandfather and namesake, Richard W. Lang, a Rutgers graduate, U.S. Air Force physician and obstetrician for 50 years, are the role models that helped draw him first to a life in the military and now to medicine.“My grandfather was a huge influence in my life,” says Lang who grew up in Westfield. “I saw someone doing what he really loved, delivering 6,000 babies before he retired.”
The Tillman Scholarship, along with his veteran benefits, will help Lang financially over the next four years. The Pat Tillman Foundation – established in 2004 following the death of Pat Tillman who left the NFL to join the Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – invests in veterans and their spouses through academic scholarships.
Lang is the second Rutgers student to be selected as a Tillman Scholar. Bryan Adams, who received his undergraduate degree in marketing at Rutgers-Camden in 2013, was chosen in 2010.
“Many of the Tillman Scholars are finding renewed passion and purpose in medicine,” says Marie Tillman, president and co-founder of the Tillman Foundation. “As a child, Rick benefited from the support of a gifted surgeon, and throughout his distinguished naval career he never lost sight of the impact that one doctor had in changing his life. We are proud to welcome him into the Tillman Scholar community and empower him as he continues his journey serving others.”
Lang says his biggest challenge now will be going from full-time navy pilot to spending his days and nights studying to become doctor.
“I hope the multitude of experiences I have had can help me become a better physician because I know how the gift provided through medicine can enhance lives,” Lang says. “I’m really looking forward to being able give this back.”