ShootingNewsKevin Nguyen

After An IED Took Kevin Nguyen From His Army Unit, He Found A New Calling As A Para Shooter

by Bob Reinert

Kevin Nguyen looks on during competition at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023 on Sept. 1, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

Kevin Nguyen had no way of knowing how much his young life was about to change when he and his Army unit left their forward operating base on a dismounted combat patrol on Feb. 2, 2013, in the Horn of Panjwai in Afghanistan.

Nor could he have imagined that the fateful day would lead to him becoming a Paralympian in the sport of shooting.

The journey began three months into his first deployment with the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Nguyen, then 20, and his fellow soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission in an area that overlooked their base. About 300 yards short of their objective, they found themselves in farm fields, where Nguyen was hit.

“I got blown up by an IED,” recalled Nguyen, who had been following right behind his team leader. “He had initially walked right over the IED. I guess I wasn’t paying attention because I stepped where he didn’t step, and that’s when I stepped on it. That’s when I went down.”

Evacuated by helicopter, Nguyen was sent back to the U.S. and spent the next two years recovering from his injuries.

“I got lucky that day,” the native of Westminster, California, said. “My boot kept me intact, actually. Not a single scratch (on my boot). Not one.”

Nyugen’s luck didn’t last, however. He learned that he had a shattered heel, nerve damage and three broken toes in his right foot. He faced a lifetime of crutches, wheelchairs and painkillers, or he could have the foot amputated. He chose the latter.

“Initially, getting this information, it really threw me down a downward spiral,” he said. “I was hopeful I’d be returning to duty soon; I could walk again. I went into a very depressive stage. I hardly did anything.”

Nguyen, who had carried 135 pounds on his 5-foot-6 frame in Afghanistan, dropped to 119 pounds by the time he returned home after he was wounded. Prior to his amputation, he was down to 105 pounds.

“I went through a very short stage of depression,” he said. “It was really a lot to process at the time. I had lost purpose. I had worked hard to get where I was. I was enjoying what I was doing. I liked the people that I was with. I had nothing to live for, nothing to work towards. I didn’t know what to do.”

Kevin Nguyen looks on during competition at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023 on Sept. 1, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

Nguyen remembered waking up one day and deciding to stop feeling sorry for himself. He started going to the gym regularly, eating more and taking care of his mental health. A year and a half later, his health was restored sufficiently to continue his Army career.

“I was looking for a home,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to get back into the fight is what I really wanted to do.”

Though he wouldn’t be returning to combat, Nguyen found that home he sought with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Georgia, which competes in national and international events. He began his competitive rifle shooting career in 2015.

“You see a lot more failures than you do successes,” Nguyen said of the early days.

Eventually, the ratio switched, and by 2021 Nguyen earned a spot on Team USA for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Nguyen, a staff sergeant from Fortson, Georgia, is now part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.

Nguyen — also a two-time Parapan American Games medalist — is now working his way toward a second Paralympic berth at this summer’s Paralympic Games Paris 2024. He recently earned the U.S. a quota spot for the Games in the 50-meter rifle R6 prone event. The third and final U.S. Paralympic Team Trials event is set for April 21-28 in Talladega, Alabama.

“This quad, I’ve seen a lot more successes in my matches than I have in a long time,” said Nguyen, who has set one national record. “I’m shooting the scores that I’m doing in training, and that’s kind of what I’m working towards. It feels really good to know that a lot of my hard work is actually starting to pay off now.”

When he’s not sharpening his own shooting, the 31-year-old Nguyen is more than happy to coach up his younger Army teammates.

“I know my stuff is squared away,” Nguyen said. “So, I try to give up a little bit of training to coach the current team members and all the new upcomers because I want to see these guys succeed, and I think after this quad, I’m done. I’m retiring my shooting jacket. I’m moving on with my military career.

“I want them to be better because they’re going to take my spot after I retire. I firmly believe in coaching the next generation. There’s a lot of potential on the rifle side.”

As for the upcoming Paralympic Games, Nguyen has reasonable expectations for himself. That likely won’t include a medal.

“If I can shoot what I’m shooting (in training) at home, I’ll be happy, whether I make it far or not,” Nguyen said. “I know I have the potential. I’m shooting really good scores. A lot of my training is really coming through.”