SNOHOMISH — When Nathan Sutton pilots his drone through the air, he’s able to rise above the stress he carries as a combat veteran.
It’s a healthy escape this Marine is grateful to have found.
Goggles strapped on, Sutton sees the world from the lofty vantage point of the drone. He’s engaged, as he guides the remote-controlled aircraft through an obstacle course, the woods, or pulls off loops, rolls and other stunts.
“It’s made a huge impact on my life, more than I ever expected,” Sutton said.
Sutton, 33, is part of a pilot program for combat veterans sponsored by DieHard RC, a local organization for people who race drones and radio-controlled cars. Sutton started last year. He was a novice, with no prior experience building or flying.
So far, he’s the first and only beneficiary. His sponsors hope to expand.
“We’re just at the starting point. It’s self-funded, but I want to help more people,” said Brenda Wilson, who owns DieHard RC with her husband, Brett.
Sutton enlisted in the Marines at 17, heading to a recruiter two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was living in North Bend at the time.
He deployed to Iraq three times over the next eight years.
His training as a demolition expert put him at the front of the front lines, destroying obstacles and defusing bombs.
In 2003, he placed explosive charges to blow up fences on the Iraqi border, opening the way for U.S. forces to enter the country. During his second deployment, in 2004 to 2005, he was embroiled in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, in Ramadi and Fallujah. He saw a different, slower phase of the conflict a couple of years later.
Sutton suffered six traumatic brain injuries, most caused by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Hidden in seemingly innocuous places — slightly disturbed ground, a discarded plastic bag, even inside animal carcasses — the deadly bombs made everyday situations threatening.
“They put IEDs in everything — anything can explode at any time,” Sutton said.
The hyper-vigilance of the battlefield never left Sutton, or many other vets, when they returned home.
“We are foolish to think we can train our brains for something they weren’t built for,” he said. “We’re also foolish to think we can ignore it.”
He wasn’t the only one who found it hard to cope.
Sutton’s best friend from the Marine Corps committed suicide in 2005, one of two friends who took their own lives while he was on active duty. Three other veterans he knew killed themselves after he got out.
Sutton compares the well of emotions to water running through a garden hose: You can try to hold it back with your thumb, but it’s there, waiting to gush out.
“It comes out and explodes,” he said.
For years, Sutton had trouble leaving his own house. He learned how to navigate crowds by focusing on just a few people at a time. People in his situation, he said, have to retrain their mind, “to do different things with the information it receives.’’
“At some point, I realized I can’t just suppress everything because it’s going to kill me,” he said.
He tried skydiving, but felt nothing. Reconnecting with other combat vets helped, through sailing, fishing, rafting, skiing or snowboarding. He has a musical outlet, writing songs to sing and play on the acoustic guitar.
Family has been even more important.
“My biggest support is my wife,” he said.
Sutton recounts his past without affectation or swagger.
“He’s very humble,” Brenda Wilson said. “He’s really good at articulating the deeper feelings, the pain that a lot of (combat vets) experience.”
She got to know him as a speaker at an annual event that her employer, Comcast, puts on to honor and support employees who are veterans. A market development manager, Wilson has been active in workplace programs for vets. She served in the Army Reserve in the 1980s and 1990s.
She and her husband started DieHard RC in 2015. They now operate a track for radio-controlled cars and a drone race course outside Snohomish. Sutton came to mind when they thought about the drone program.
“Nathan’s one of those guys: If I was in a situation and I needed someone to stand up for me, he would be there for me,” Wilson said. “He’s the type of person who runs toward problems, not away from them.”
Drone start-up costs can be steep, at about $1,500. It’s generally cheap to fly and make repairs.
“I funded it and I bought the stuff for him out of my own pocket,” Wilson said.
Building his first drone was easier and more gratifying than Sutton expected. A young tech whiz from the club led him through the process. It comforted him in ways other pursuits never did.
He enjoys the social aspect, like when people come up to talk while he flies at Jennings Memorial Park, near his home in Marysville. He’s involved his two sons, ages 8 and 10. Both fly drones, the younger one built his own.
“I’ve tried a lot of different things, but this has been the most therapeutic,” he said. “I thought I was really far along with my PTSD.”
Sutton is something of an expert on the topic — professionally and personally. He has been in the mental health field for seven-plus years and does outreach work for the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Sutton said he’s delivered hundreds of talks on PTSD and traumatic brain injury, as well as sexual assault and harassment in the military, also known as military sexual trauma or MST.
Earlier this month, Sutton demonstrated his flying skills at DieHard Family RC Park, off of Old Snohomish-Monroe Road. He followed a course marked by white dots on the grass, guiding his drone over some obstacles, under others.
Crashes and technical glitches occasionally interrupted the air time.
Brenda’s husband, Brett Wilson, looked on and offered some gruff praise: “Jeez, Mr. Sutton, you have come a long way.”
DieHard RC, a business that caters to drone and radio-controlled-car enthusiasts, has started a pilot program to help veterans with PTSD. More info: visit www.DieHardRC.com or email DieHardRC@comcast.net.