As these things do, my trip to Alabama on behalf of Veteran Outdoors started innocently enough. A friend in the Atlanta, GA area texted me to ask if we’d ever get to shoot a rifle match together. I sent a message to one of the owners of Accurate Ordnance, my riflesmith of choice, to see what was coming up, and he replied with the details of their sponsored match the last weekend in April at the facility that Alabama Precision calls home.
Details in hand, I called Toby Nunn, my local coordinator for Veteran Outdoors, and asked if he knew of any veterans that might like to ride along on the trip. A day later, my email pinged to let me know I had a new message from Toby.
Please meet Johnny Nguyen. Johnny is a cool cat that got a little banged up while in Iraq serving with 1/5 Cavalry. Since getting out he has taken up shooting and guns and reloading and shooting and killing animals and shooting….
Johnny is based out of San Antonio, not far from where he recovered after losing his left leg above the knee to an IED in Iraq. I sent Johnny an email to let him know that I’d be happy to meet up with him prior to the event, and we made plans to have lunch.
This seems as important a time as any to disclose a few things. First, I am not a veteran. I never served, and up until I started interacting with veterans on a weekly basis as part of my duties here at TTAG, I held a dim view of the military and those who served. This was driven almost exclusively by the arrogance that only a smarmy teenager from a small town, headed off to a fancy pants liberal arts school, can muster.
As a graduate of a small town school, I saw military service as the last recourse of those not “fit” for a four year university. Steve Earle put it a bit better than I can in “Copperhead Road” when he said that they “draft the white trash first ’round here anyway.” Each year, I saw the recruiters scoop up those kids who didn’t have much else going on. They’d buy them a hot lunch, pump them up with bravado and good ‘ole patriotism, and send them off to go fight George Bush’s wars in the Middle East. To my knowledge, most, if not all returned home and for that I’m thankful.
I held that dim view right up until the moment I stepped foot into corporate America, where I met a thriving community of veterans working in *gasp* my fancy pants world. As the months and years progressed, I met lots of veterans who owned companies, made cool products, and took care of their families. One of those was our very own Jon Wayne Taylor. Jon was the one who introduced me to Toby and the Veteran Outdoors crew, and inspired my dedication to their organization by telling me that, “They were the first group of people who showed me what a grateful nation looked like.”
My exposure to VO up until this shooting match had been limited to financial and gun/gear related contributions. Here and there, I review a product that a manufacturer doesn’t want or is willing to part with for a significant discount. Given the amount of gear that VO cycles through in a year taking wounded veterans hunting, camping, hiking, and fishing, anything and everything is helpful.
But actually interacting with a wounded veteran in a capacity as a volunteer was brand new to me. Luckily, VO paired me up with a solid guy with a great attitude. Jon Wayne Taylor reinforced that on a phone call the day before I had planned to have lunch with Johnny.
“I’m meeting up with Johnny Nguyen tomorrow to have lunch. We’re going to a shooting match in Alabama together”, I said.
“Johnny? The world’s happiest one legged Asian?”, Jon replied.
In his fairly dry and direct way, Jon went on to tell me that there are some veterans who are just not ready to start healing yet. Jon was quite clear that Johnny was not that guy and that I’d have a great time.
The next day, Johnny and I met up for lunch at Hopdoddy in Austin while he was in town visiting family. I was worried about how we’d be able to pick each other out in the restaurant, but I realized that there wouldn’t be too many one legged Asian guys walking around, a comment that got a big grin from Johnny over a plate of Parmesan fries after we sat down. We chatted about his hobbies (shooting), the layout of a precision rifle match, and the logistics of our trip.
Originally, I’d planned on picking him up in San Antonio, driving him out and around, and returning him home. A week before our lunch, he texted me in a panic to apologize for a scheduling mixup. He had committed to a turkey hunting trip in Kentucky in the days leading up to the match, but assured me that it would wrap up on Thursday. Our match started on Friday. I asked if he could meet me in Nashville, the halfway point between Birmingham and his location in Kentucky, and he agreed.
At lunch, I offered to pick up his gear so he wouldn’t have to fly with it which got a quizzical look from across the table. “Oh. I decided to drive myself instead of fly. I forgot to tell you.”, came the response from across the table.
“Ehhhh shitttt…”, I replied. I’d gotten off the phone that morning with the sales manager at Covert Chevrolet who had graciously agreed to loan me a brand new Chevy truck for the journey. Part of my proposal had included ferrying a veteran several hundred miles back from Alabama.
“Oh no. Will this mess that up?”, Johnny asked.
‘Time will tell.”, I responded.
Fast forward to the Tuesday before I departed. Sitting in the sales manager’s office at Covert Chevrolet, I laid out the change in plans. I offered him the opportunity to rescind the offer given that the original plan had changed to which he responded, “I don’t care at all. Have a good time.” and handed me the keys.
Thursday morning at 5:00 AM, I rolled out of my driveway with roughly eight hundred miles of driving ahead of me. Several fuel stops, a few Red Bulls, and a podcast or two later, I rolled up to the valet stand at the Westin Birmingham.
Luckily, a bar was nearby and I was able to slake my thirst with a healthy pour of Jamesons and a somewhat local Pecan Brown Ale. Johnny joined me shortly after and we grabbed a bite to eat and then retired to our hotel room. Exhaustion and a mild buzz took hold, and I was out before I knew it.
I was up early the next morning to pick up my friend Jacob from the Birmingham airport. He’d hopped a 5:00 AM flight to join us at the match and accompany me on the ride back to Texas since Johnny was planning a much longer, scenic route and Jacob and I had to return to our day jobs sooner rather than later.
Checked into our free hotel for the weekend (many thanks to Jacob’s status as a Platinum Elite for that), we set off for the Alabama Precision facility forty five minutes northwest outside of Carbon Hill. Halfway there, Johnny muttered an “oh shit” from the backseat and informed us that he’d forgotten the silencer for his home built eighteen inch 6.5 x 47 Savage. We flipped a quick U turn, got his can, and got back on the road. I’m happy to report that our minor diversion was the biggest SNAFU of the whole weekend.
Out at the optional Friday train up, we got a chance to shoot every target available to confirm that the buttonology we’d done on our phones and Kestrels lined up with real life. Johnny and Jacob were spot on, but my new load for the Nosler 175 RDF out of my Accurate Ordnance built .308 was iffy and required some truing. We were blessed with some calm winds that allowed me to put hits on the steel at 1200 yards – all out of a 20″ barrel!
With our D.O.P.E recorded and Jacob fading fast from his early Texas departure, we grabbed a senior citizens timed dinner dinner at a local BBQ place, and dropped Jacob off for an early bedtime. Johnny and I went through the match book and rehearsed the various stages as best we could, did some dry fire, and worked out a couple kinks before calling it a night ourselves.
Early the next morning, we set off for the range and made it just in time for an excellent safety briefing from Jim Saunders who worked tireless the entire weekend to make sure that everyone had a good, safe time. After the briefing, a convoy of vehicles set off for the range.
This is the only time that the 2017 High Country on loan from Covert Chevrolet saw anything other than pavement and I made sure to put it in 4WD for no other reason than I had the power. Jacob and I enjoyed the air conditioned seats while Johnny slummed it up in the back, reclined in leather comfort.
One of the primary reasons I’d signed up for this match was to squad with, shoot next to, and generally absorb some info from one of Accurate Ordnance’s owners, Mark Kuczka. Unfortunately for the assembled group, Mark’s daughter had her first ballet recital the same weekend, so he was not able to attend. I sent him a text as we were unloading to let him know that we were getting started and asked for some advice.
“Nobody remembers scores. Take a bunch of pictures and have fun.”
I shot really well on the first day and absolutely choked and died on the second day. I don’t know what happened exactly, but I just could not hit. Meanwhile, Johnny and Jacob were pouring on the steam and had excellent days with the second day better for both. With 48 points out of a possible 172, Johnny came in 117th out of 128 shooters. I fared slightly better, snagging 62 points for a 109th place finish overall – seventh out of eleven in the tactical division. Jacob beat me by one point for a 107th place finish overall.
Throughout the weekend, I kept asking Johnny if he was having a good time, and he kept beaming back with a huge smile and an enthusiastic “YES!” to my repeated interrogations. As we were packing up our gear, I asked Johnny to model a bit for the upcoming review of the Chevy High Country. Specifically, if it was worth a damn as a shooting platform or friendly to one legged men.
Johnny was all too happy to ham it up for the camera and even though he admitted that his leg was very sore and that he was very tired, his infectious positivity never seemed to waver. At one point during our impromptu modeling session, I asked if he wouldn’t mind hiking up his pants a little bit so as to show off his prosthesis.
He was all to happy to oblige my request, and even went a bit further by spinning his leg around backwards. Injuries be damned, the man has a great sense of humor. And honestly, that’s what made the whole trip worth it. Spending some time outdoors getting some much needed perspective from a man my age who has lived an extra couple lifetimes. Working with Veteran Outdoors has done little to assuage my shame for the pigheaded opinions I held as a teenager, but it has allowed me to meet a lot of really great people along the way.
Many thanks to my friend Jacob for putting us up in a hotel for several nights free of charge and providing an endless library of audiobooks for the marathon 12 hour drive home. An extra large thank you to the team at Covert Chevrolet for loaning me a brand new truck for the trip. Johnny enjoyed riding like royalty in the plush rear seats. And it goes without saying that none of this could have happened without the fine folks at Veteran Outdoors. If you’re interested in supporting Veteran Outdoors, you can follow this link to donate directly. You can also set VO as your designated nonprofit of choice using Amazon Smile as well.