Airman recovering from Kodiak bear attack

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dillon White
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs Office
A Malmstrom Airman recently returned home safely with more than 140 stitches in his left side and neck. He is recovering from wounds he sustained from a bear attack in a remote region of Kodiak Island, Alaska, Oct. 26. 

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Sutton, 341st Operations Group NCO in charge of supply, and his hunting partner, Bill Bush, were forced to remain on Kodiak Island for two days after the attack until Mr. Bush was able to reach a passing aircraft with a low-power VHF radio. 

"It started out as the perfectly planned hunting trip; hunting for deer the first week and brown bear the second," Sergeant Sutton said. "The chances of being mauled by bears were very slim since it just doesn't happen that often on Kodiak." 

The two hunters were flown into Viekoda Bay, about 10 miles west of Port Lions, Alaska, by a local airways service in a DeHavilland Beaver, a single-engine plane fitted with pontoon landing gear. 

The following day, the men hunted behind their cabin with little success, but did see a brown bear. 

"Sunday morning turned out to be a beautiful morning so we decided to use the boat to motor to the mouth of Viekoda Bay to locate some Sitka deer," Sergeant Sutton said. "Bill wasn't concerned about antlers, so we agreed on the motto, 'If it's brown, it's down,' since we could both harvest three deer each." 

The men hiked from the beach up the incline of the mountain and soon found themselves at snowline, about 1,800 feet in elevation. The two men were hunting separate meadows while staying in contact via two-way radios. Sergeant Sutton then spotted a doe and harvested it. 

Mr. Bush then accompanied him down the hill, where they planned to load the deer onto the boat. 

"We both headed down the mountain together walking about 100 yards apart. When we neared the bottom, we couldn't see each other due to the heavy brush and thick alders. I found myself getting ahead of the animal a few times to locate an easy path to drag the deer. When I was almost at the water's edge, I heard a roar coming right at me," Sergeant Sutton said. 

A Kodiak bear cub knocked him down then picked him up by the back of the neck and carried him back toward the deer. He then spotted two more bears, a sow and another cub. He stood and yelled at the bears to leave, and was attacked once more before they turned their attention to the deer carcass. Sergeant Sutton's third attempt to slide away was stopped by one of the cubs. 

"I started to slide and push backwards but I found a bear on top of me breathing and popping their jaws almost immediately so I continued to play dead," Sergeant Sutton said. 

After getting their fill, the Kodiaks covered the deer carcass in dirt and returned up the mountain, leaving Sergeant Sutton behind, he said.
With adrenaline rushing, he called to his friend to bring a gun with him before he made his way to the water's edge. Mr. Bush then went to retrieve the boat, but found it was beached by the low tide. 

"When we got across the bay in the morning, it was high tide, and when Matt got attacked the tide had lowered so I had to get the boat down to the water myself," Mr. Bush said.
After he helped Sergeant Sutton into the inflatable boat, the two made an hour-long trip in three- to four-foot waves, approximately three miles across the bay to where the cabin was located. 

The two then had at least 150 yards between them and the cabin, before they reached safety. 

"I secured the boat and then we started walking," Mr. Bush said. "Matt said he was about to pass out, so I put his arm around my neck to help him the rest of the way." 

Sergeant Sutton's body went into shock as soon as he entered the cabin, Mr. Bush said. 

"Matt was shaking like a leaf almost all night long," Mr. Bush said. "He had two sleeping bags and some extra covers on him to retain his heat." 

The two employed self-aid and buddy-care methods Sergeant Sutton learned from his Air Force training. They cleaned his wounds with hydrogen peroxide and bandaged them with paper towels and electrical tape. Mr. Bush changed them with clean dressings to prevent excess bleeding every four to five hours. 

Sergeant Sutton's memory of eating cookies after donating blood is something he also attributed to his military career, and he polished off a bag of cookies they had in the cabin to help raise his blood sugar levels. Mr. Bush also filled his hydration pack with warm sugar water to raise his body temperature and give him energy. 

"Bill gave me the encouragement I needed the next two days," Sergeant Sutton said. 

The men spent those following two days in the cabin, with Sergeant Sutton confined to his bunk by his wounds. Although he was calm, he was also in a great deal of pain, Mr. Bush said. 

"I would tell him pain is good because you know you're alive," he said. 

The airway service that flew the men out was scheduled to stop and check on them the next day, but Mr. Bush contacted an aircraft as it flew over their cabin Tuesday morning. 

"I went out to check on the boat, and did not think a plane would be flying over, but I heard the rumble of a rotary engine float plane off the head of the bay. I hit the radio and called 'mayday, mayday, rolling point Viekoda Bay, mayday'. The pilot worked for the same airway that brought us out. The plane turned toward us and flew in 50 feet off the water straight toward the cabin. It was the sweetest sight I've ever seen," Mr. Bush said. 

The pilot told Mr. Bush his VHF radio signal was so weak he could barely hear it in the cockpit of the plane, which is why all prior attempts at contacting help probably failed. 

The pilot landed to assist, but Sergeant Sutton was unable to move due to his injuries, so the pilot radioed the company's office, who then called the Coast Guard. 

"Like any well-trained U.S. military unit, they did a fantastic job," Sergeant Sutton said. 

The Coast Guard loaded him into an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and flew him into Kodiak. Once in the Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, he was met by the Coast Guard commander, who asked him who his commander was at Malmstrom. 

"I knew at this point I had to call my wife before my group commander did," Sergeant Sutton said. 

Over the course of the next several days, Sergeant Sutton received support in numerous ways from family, friends and medical personnel. 

Sergeant Sutton's Air Force family supported him as well, he said. 

The 341st OG pooled together and bought gifts for the Sutton family's five daughters and arranged for a birthday cake to be delivered to the hospital on Sergeant Sutton's birthday, Nov. 3. 

One of Sergeant Sutton's doctors was a retired Air Force colonel named Elisha T. Powell IV. 

"[He] gave me the best care anyone suffering from a bear attack could ever ask for," Sergeant Sutton said. 

Dr. Powell told him his wounds were similar to those of servicemembers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

"I teased [Col. David Durgan, 341st OG commander] when he greeted me and my family at the [Great Falls International Airport] to see if I was eligible for the 'Kodiak Bear Medal' and maybe even upgrade it with two devices since there were two cubs," the father of five said. 

Sergeant Sutton did not receive a medal, but did coax a laugh from everyone. 

Sergeant Sutton plans to return to work in early December, and will undergo rehabilitation at the Health and Wellness Center after his wounds fully heal. 

Editor's note: the following is a personal message from Tech. Sgt. Matthew Sutton to friends and family.

I plan on sharing my story in detail with a slideshow Jan. 23 at Temple Baptist Church during a free sportsman's dinner where people can bring their hunting stories, pictures, and enjoy a free wild-game feed hosted by the members of Temple Baptist Church.

This Thanksgiving I encourage everyone to cherish the time they spend with their family and not to get "all wrapped up" with material things. Read your kids a book, take them to the park or just go for a drive together. When I had death pass before me there were no thoughts of riding in my boat or cruising down 10th Avenue on my motorcycle. My wife and kids were all that came to my mind, so cherish those moments. And if you know of someone with a family member who is deployed, invite them over for a meal and welcome them into your house with love.

After a trip like this, I am thankful to know and/or work with all of these folks:

1. Thank you foremost to God, for sparing my health and life. 

2. Thank you to my hunting partner, Bill Bush, for saving my life at the cabin. 

3. Thank you to Dean Andrews and Steve Larson for picking us up on the VHF radio a day early, assisting in my rescue and even going the extra mile by retrieving my lost gear several days after the attack. 

4. Thank you to the Coast Guard members, who performed an outstanding rescue. 

5. Thank you to Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center staff, for being gentle with me before the morphine kicked in. 

6. Thank you to Providence Alaska Medical Center staff in Anchorage, Alaska, (Dr. Powell, Dr. Artwohl, PA Serie, Nurse Angel, and the wonderful support from the nursing staff at Providence on the 4th floor). 

7. Thank you to Al, Effie, Doug and Monica Oldham, for their family-like friendship. 

8. Thank you to Dean Thibideau, for flying down from Fairbanks and fighting off the media. 

9. Thank you to Kristi Paul, our neighbor, for assisting Holly and my daughters immediately after the mishap. 

10. Thank you to Steve Lemons, for suppressing the negative comments on the blogs, visiting me in the hospital and being a good friend. 

11. Thank you to my mother and brother, Phyllis and Chris, for the family support and flying in from Pennsylvania to be with me in the hospital. 

12. Thank you to Temple Baptist Church in Montana for praying, being a wonderful church family and being supportive all the way. 

13. Thank you to Heritage Baptist Church in Anchorage, Alaska, for your prayers, meals and the opportunity to share my testimony. 

14. Thank you to 341 Operations Group and 341st Missile Wing; Col. Michael Fortney and staff, Col. David Durgan, Lt. Col. Robert Sluga, Master Sgt. Timoteo Silva, Chief Master Sgt. Donald May, Jennifer Litman, Margie Cross, and all the others in the 341st OG who helped out in this time of need. 

15. Thank you to the 3rd Medical Group, Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, for supporting the casualty orders, the outstanding service and the meals that were dropped off. 

16. Thank you to Bruce and Mary Ann Bowers, Holly's parents, for flying to Montana from Pennsylvania despite the high cost of tickets, to take care of the five girls and maybe even spoil them a little bit. 

17. Thank you to everyone who I might have missed since there were many people who I could have overlooked. 

18. Last but not least, thank you to my wonderful wife, Holly, for being by my side from the beginning. I do apologize if I happened to be a little cranky in the hospital and will promise not to go deer hunting on Kodiak again as long as you let me shoot a brown bear. I love you and am Thankful this Thanksgiving season even more -- to share it with a wonderful person.