The path to college was not always in Alex Nguyen’s plans, but after being injured in Afghanistan, Nguyen’s plans changed to include a college degree and wheelchair basketball career at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Nguyen, who is a first-year student, was a combat engineer in the Marines for nine years. On Sept. 20, 2011, Nguyen and three other Marines were injured in an IED explosion. Both of his ankles were shattered and his left ankle and foot were broken.
“In July of 2013, my right leg got amputated,” Nguyen said. “As of right now, I’m in the process of trying to save my left leg.”
Nguyen said he originally planned to spend his career in the Marine Corps. After his injury, he was told he would have to take a desk job, which he did not want.
“Up to that point, I’d been shot at and fought in the war,” Nguyen said. “I knew there was no way I was going to be able to just sit at a desk.”
Nguyen’s doctor encouraged him to think about going to college after seeing the x-rays of his legs.
“That’s when it kind of clicked in my head, like ok, maybe I should start thinking about life outside the Marines,” Nguyen said. “After that, that’s when it became a reality of me starting school.”
Nguyen said he was originally interested in pursuing a degree in physical therapy due to the combat injuries of one of his closest friends.
“He got injured in combat and lost a leg,” Nguyen said. “I felt bad and I thought well, what can I do to help my buddies and others that get hurt in Afghanistan? It came to mind that I could be a physical therapist and help these guys get back to 100 percent.”
Nguyen’s recovery process for his own combat injuries led him towards a career in physical therapy.
“My very first physical therapist told me she knew what I was going through, and I’m literally laying in the hospital bed with my two legs strung up … and she’s standing there on her two legs,” Nguyen said. “If someone comes in with a broken leg and they tell me I don’t know the pain they’ve gone through, I can say hey, check out my leg.”
After starting school at UNO, Nguyen said his career goals have changed as more possibilities opened up.
“Being in college, everything is kind of changing because I’m in a different environment,” Nguyen said. “I’m taking classes I’ve never thought I would take, like gerontology, which was actually really interesting to me.”
Nguyen chose to pursue a degree at UNO in order to play wheelchair basketball, which he said has enabled him to meet new people and make friends.
The main difference between wheelchair basketball and basketball is the strategy of the game, said to Nguyen. The rules and regulations are the same except “you can’t dunk.”
“We go to tournaments and we’re playing two to three games a day two days in a row,” Nguyen said. “It’s just as competitive as any other sport.”
Nguyen’s wheelchair basketball teammate Jeromie Meyer, who described Nguyen as “hardworking,” said he brings humor to the team.
“He brings the best out of dull situations and stays very positive,” Meyer said. “He’s really competitive because he wants to win.”