The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America left an indelible mark on An Nguyen with the death of his father at the Pentagon, but the George Mason University graduate student has overcome considerable hurdles to ensure that he honors his father every day by becoming the kind of young man his beloved father would have wanted.
His story has evolved to become less defined by the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11 and more by its remarkable abundance of resilience, hope, perseverance and a mother’s love.
Khang Nguyen was a 41-year-old electronics engineer working as a civilian contractor for the Navy when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., killing all 64 people aboard and 125 more inside the building.
His mother, Tu HoNguyen, an engineer who was working at the time for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been slated to work at the Pentagon that day, but was sidelined at home by a car accident from a few days earlier, saving the family from further tragedy.
“I think it took me a few weeks to truly realize he was gone,” said An Nguyen, who completed his BS in information technology at Mason in 2019. “It just took a long time. I didn’t realize that he wasn’t coming back until seeing his casket on the day of his funeral. How do you explain that to a 4-year-old child? It’s heartbreaking.”
Processing such a traumatic event is often extremely difficult for adults, let alone a 4-year-old who had previously shown signs of autism prior to that fateful day.
Unable to express the depths of his grief, An essentially stopped speaking in the wake of the tragic events.
Now left to single-handedly raise her and her late husband’s only child, Tu HoNguyen saw to it that An received all the support he needed to work his way through such great loss. Her unwavering love and support—as well as that from her mother—proved invaluable when coupled with help from caring school guidance counselors and child psychologists.
“I had to overcome my sorrow,” said Tu HoNguyen, who is also a Mason alum graduating with a master’s degree in computer science in 1992. “I had to be strong.”
Her tireless efforts were rewarded when An, at age 7, emerged from the shell of sorts to which he’d retreated following his father’s death and immediately began thriving. He became very focused on excelling in his school work and began trying his hand at a number of different activities over the next few years such as swimming, tennis, basketball and martial arts in the hopes of becoming the kind of all-around young man that his father would have wanted him to be.
An had plenty of college options by the time he graduated from high school, but chose to attend Mason, following in the footsteps of his parents, two aunts and two uncles. Khang Nguyen was a few credits shy of earning his master’s degree from Mason at the time of his death. His parents had immigrated to the United States from their native Vietnam in the years following the Vietnam War.
An Nguyen graduated magna cum laude from Mason, and now works as a software engineer in Northern Virginia. He will receive his master’s degree in software engineering from Mason in December.
“It’s kind of a miracle,” Tu HoNguyen said. “He’s overcome so much. We are so blessed.
As he grew older, An began reading as much as he could about 9/11 and the U.S. “War on Terror” that began in its immediate aftermath in the hopes of making sense of the awful tragedy in some way.
Seeing other young kids grow up with their fathers was difficult because he could never experience the bond between father and son. An had to instead rely on his mother and the memories from other family members for their recollections of him.
“I had to basically form my identity without my father by my side,” he said.
An loved his father, who is remembered by those who knew him as being kind, smart and compassionate, and continues to treasure these qualities about him as he seeks every day to incorporate them into his own life. Khang Nguyen was also talented at playing the guitar, a skill that An also hopes to fully pick up in the future so he can play the same songs his father did when he was young.
Both An Nguyen and his mother will be at the Pentagon on Saturday.
“There are a lot of emotions and reflections in these past 20 years,” An Nguyen said. “Now…I hope to honor his legacy and promote a better and more just society.”