Kevin Nguyen wins gold in the mixed's 50-meter rifle prone SH1 at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019.
Kevin Nguyen often gets asked about the difference between shooting a gun as part of his U.S. Army career and shooting competitively for Team USA and as a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.
The answer, he said, tends to change a little every time because it’s hard to describe.
“I use the same mindset as when I was deployed overseas,” he said. “We would joke around and lollygag but when you walk outside the wire you have to have a blank mind and focus on the job, focus on the task. When I get on the firing line my mind goes blank. You can’t bring your personal life or drama. When you get on the firing line it’s the same as outside the wire. You can’t let outside factors affect your performance. My mind is focused solely on my task and what I need to do to be successful at my job. I don’t know a better way to describe it. Only I’m not getting shot at.”
An important distinction, Nguyen admits.
The 26-year-old from Westminster, California, is a rising star with the U.S. Para shooting program, having recently won the gold medal in R6 in the mixed 50-meter prone rifle event at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. He’s currently in Sydney, Australia, where he’ll compete at his second World Shooting Para Sport Championships beginning on Sunday.
Seven years ago, Nguyen was preparing for something dramatically different.
Inspired by his great uncle, who fought for the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, against the North Vietnamese and their communist allies, Nguyen joined the Army in 2011 at the age of 19. His father, who was drafted out of high school to fight for the Republic of Vietnam, didn’t want his son, a first-generation American, to experience what he did at war.
“He didn’t want that life for me,” Nguyen said. “He was very against it and we fought for months about it but at the end of the day it was my decision. He kind of progressed though and he’s proud of me now. The military has grown on him.”
Less than a year later, in November 2012, serving as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army infantry, Nguyen deployed to Afghanistan. Three months later on the nose, he said, an improvised explosive device detonated, leaving Nguyen with a severe injury to his right foot.
“It happened so fast and it was over with,” he said of his deployment. “I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to serve alongside the other guys a little longer. I felt cheated, like, ‘This can’t be happening. I can’t leave the guys.’”
Initially doctors told Nguyen he was going to be fine, that they thought they could save the foot. It wasn’t until six months later that he found out they suspected he would lose it but didn’t want to add shock and panic to the stress he was already under.
There was too much damage, and doctors eventually told him that he could keep his foot and likely spend the rest of his life on crutches and medicated for the pain, or he could amputate and he’d be able to run, jump and live life to the fullest.
Nguyen said it was the hardest decision he ever had to make.
“I sat and thought about it weeks on end, hardly slept, hardly ate, didn’t go out much, was confined to my room just trying to process it,” he said. “I was pretty heartbroken. I went through a small depression stage, then one day I snapped out of it and said I have to stop worrying about it, cut it off, get back on my feet and get back to work.”
Still, the idea terrified Nguyen enough that he scheduled then canceled the surgery once before rescheduling and going through with it in the summer of 2013.
His only regret now, he said, was that he didn’t have the surgery sooner.
After being fitted with his prosthetic and getting back in shape, Nguyen was eager to get back to work. He was referred to Armando Ayala, then the coach of the Paralympic Division of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit.
Nguyen made his international competition debut in June 2017 at the World Shooting Para Sport match at Fort Benning and finished second in R3 (mixed 10-meter air rifle prone SH1) and first place in R6 (mixed 50-meter rifle prone SH1).
With his second trip to the world championships, Nguyen said, his main goal is to be less glued to the outcome than he was the first go-around and more focused on his process, being in the moment and having a good performance. He hopes that, plus all the hard work the past few years, will lead to his place competing at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I remember (four-time Olympian and national rifle team coach) Jason Parker said, ‘There’s no better feeling than standing on that podium, looking at the American flag being flown higher than any other flag and hearing the national anthem played,’” Nguyen said. “I was thinking of that the entire time (winning gold at the Parapan Games) and he was right. I had chills the entire time from when it started to when it ended. It felt really good. I definitely want to relive that moment again, and between Parapans and now I’ve been working really hard to make that happen.”