Ankeny Teen Paralyzed by Accused Gunman Remains Positive Despite Circumstance

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ANKENY, Iowa -- It’s been a life-changing year for Justin Phongsavanh but he’s not letting it set him back.

Last October, the now 19-year-old was shot outside of an Ankeny McDonalds. The accused gunman, Gabriel Coco’s trial began on Monday. Coco faces one count of attempted murder and two counts of willful injury.

The teen was shot once in the arm, causing the bullet to travel through his lung and eventually hit his spine. It left him paralyzed from the chest down.

“People don`t see me as a 6-foot 1-inch person anymore, they see me as a 4-foot 9-inch person,” he says.

The incident hasn’t kept him from living, though. Phongsavanh is a first-year student at Des Moines Area Community College studying financial administration. He’s also a Paralympic athlete, competing in competitions across the county. He even ranks fourth in the world in discus.

Phongsavanh says some aspects of his life are better now than ever before.

“There are endless possibilities I can do," he said. "It’s just trying to get out there and do them.”

Despite support from family and friends, he still has days of defeat, struggling with social anxiety and life in a wheelchair.

“Like taking up space, people having to move chairs, making special accommodations," he said. "It's not an issue for people because they are willing to help. I just wish I didn`t have to be a burden on these people trying to do this stuff.”

Phongsavanh, along with Nick Culver, the other teenager involved in the shooting, will testify in court on Tuesday.


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