Nathan Brown of Kalispell is a survivor.
Brown, 37, has come out of homelessness, war, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attempted suicide and traumatic brain injury, alive.
Each day is another step on a path of healing.
His mission now is to inspire others to choose life and to find something to hang onto in getting past moments of despair, which is why he is sharing his story.
What now serves as Brown’s source of encouragement is volunteering to teach youth about robotics as a creative outlet through an organization he formed called Full Throttle Robotics.
“This is all for the kids. So, to step into the limelight, is not, it’s very difficult for me,” Brown said sitting down in a chair by a work table covered with parts and pieces for building robots and radio controlled (RC) cars in his home on June 6.
Brown said he first got into building hobby RC cars as a child. His calm and pleasant demeanor became more animated as he talked about his passion for robotics and RC cars. Eventually, the conversation turned to when he joined the Army in 2002.
“9/11 was probably the biggest thing, and making a difference,” Brown said about why he enlisted.
Making a difference would be a turnaround from the life he was leading, homeless and alone.
“Another reason for joining the Army is I think I would have been in jail, or dead, had I not changed my ways. I knew I had to do something to redirect my focus,” Brown said.
In 2004, he served a year in Iraq during major battles for the cities of Fallujah and Najaf. He became a tank driver and while in Iraq was “pulling security” for soldiers in bomb suits who were using a robot, piquing his interest.
“I wanted to be those guys,” Brown said with a smile.
Back at camp, he learned they were explosive ordnance disposal technicians and tested for the job. This meant wearing a heavy bomb suit in extreme temperatures while carrying a heavy weapon without dropping it to ensure he had the stamina, strength and dexterity to do the job.
“I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie and when you’re doing bomb technician work the really cool thing about it is, psychologically, you have to be able to calm yourself down in any situation because if you’re nervous, if you’re anxious, if you’re having issues you may mess up. And as a bomb tech, if you mess up, you become a pink mist is what we call it,” he said.
In 2009, he went to Afghanistan where he served for nine months.
After the tours of duty, Brown returned to the U.S. and wanted to continue serving as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. He met physical and psychological requirements to receive formal training then went to work in Virginia and Washington D.C.
“I was the one to tell the Secret Service whether the room was safe for President Bush and President Obama,” Brown said.
Eventually, injuries sustained in the war caught up with him. After four years, this chapter in his life ended.
He tried to start a tow truck company, but it failed, compounding his depression and he attempted suicide multiple times.
“I got to the point where I knew I had to get out of Washington, and Kalispell was home,” he said.
Brown debated on what to do with his life.
“I love electronics and I love building and creating stuff, so I was going to go to school in Texas for car audio installation, upholstery, home theater,” he said.
With something positive to focus on, Brown set out for Texas when the accident that would leave an indelible mark occurred. Two dates he does not have difficulty remembering is the date he was born and the accident on Aug. 10, 2015.
Brown was headed on Interstate 90 going into Missoula when a violent windstorm blew a tree down into the roadway, causing a multi-vehicle accident that resulted in one man’s death. Brown recalled how he managed to drive around the tree, but on the other side, sideswiped the trailer of a semi.
Airlifted to the hospital, Brown battled for his life, sustaining a broken collarbone and leg, ruptured spleen, bruised lungs and damage to the frontal lobe of his brain. The frontal lobe plays an important role in cognitive functions according to the Mayo Clinic and it was immediately evident that Brown’s memory had been impacted.
“For the next month every time I woke up I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know who my family was,” Brown said. At the time, the father of three was married. “I had to be retold everything — that I’d gotten into an accident.”
When recounting the traumatic brain injury, Brown took off the jaunty gray hat he was wearing and with an index finger traced a line in the air following the path of a scar on his scalp.
“That’s the scar,” Brown said.
“With a brain injury the biggest challenge is that it changes who you are,” he said.
As Brown healed, he began to regain his memory. Bad memories he’d tried to forget resurfaced.
“I was having to re-live all of those things. I had spent my whole life — from a very, very young age — avoiding life. I grew up in Kalispell; I was homeless; I had done a lot of things I wasn’t proud of,” Brown said.
“After my accident I could not hide anymore from all those things,” he said.
The deluge of memories overwhelmed him. Brown said he hadn’t learned how to deal with negative emotions in a healthy way before the accident and had different “crutches” whether that meant self-medicating or self-harming. The injury without these crutches made dealing with the memories more difficult.
“The hard thing was not being able to cry. Not being able to deal with emotion,” Brown said. The next year was a roller coaster when he arrived at his darkest hour, and attempted to take his life again with the finality of writing letters to his family.
Experiencing a numbness to the pain of self-inflicted injuries, Brown described feeling a jolt of pain that pulled him back to reality. He called 911 and the dispatcher kept him on the line until emergency services arrived. He doesn’t know who the dispatcher was on the other line, but wants to thank her to this day.
“When you talk about suicide it stirs up every single feeling that goes with suicide — the self doubt, the negativity, the hate, all of that, feeling like a burden to the world, it all comes back,” Brown said pausing.
But through it all he discovered self-compassion was what he needed to persevere. On a wall behind where Brown sat in the workroom is a sign that reads “the best project you’ll ever work on is you.” It is located beside items that are important to his daily life such as keys and a school ID badge.
“I never learned to love myself,” he said, later noting “And now I have realized the best way to help the people around me is to help myself. The greatest way I can impact others is by helping myself. I never thought that was possible. I thought that was selfish, and it’s not selfish because if you kill yourself what good are you to anybody.”
Brown said in relating his experiences he wanted to remove the stigma of talking about suicide openly with the goal of learning to recognize sings of distress and coping skills.
“I think suicide is something we all think about [at some point]. I don’t think it should be stigmatized,” he said. “It’s what you do with that thought that allows you to get through that moment. It’s not about not ever feeling that thought. I don’t think that anybody should be judged for thinking that. I think that we need to encourage people, to learn — educate themselves — because the whole root of this entire thing is I was not educated in how to deal with thoughts,” Brown said.
“I look at the moment — what I’m going to do and how it’s going to impact me in the future,” he said. “Before it was all about the ‘now.’”
And Brown is looking forward to a future of encouraging youth by sharing his passion for robotics, which grew out of a love for building radio control cars.
Brown said there are two sides to robotics — building and coding. He focuses on the building side since he has trouble with numbers due to the brain injury.
Teaching is a challenge when his memory has been impacted. He can tell when his mental energy is drained when he starts to, for example, forget what he’s previously taught or a student’s name. He explains his injury to students so they understand.
“I’ll say something and I’ll forget, so I have to write it down. The problem with writing it down is I will take that little book and put it somewhere in my house in a safe place, but then I’ll forget it,” Brown said with a light laugh.
While he may have trouble remembering names, he’s not forgotten the support and encouragement school staff have shown in the year and a half he’s been invited to local schools as a volunteer to teach robotics in Smith Valley and Kila schools — or the excitement of students learning how to robots function as they build their own.
“Where I’m at today compared to four years ago is night and day and that’s my motivation to keep pushing it,” Brown said.
Life has been heading in a good direction for Brown.
“The reality is the times when I have the negative thoughts is less and less because it is getting better. I know that I am healing.”
Like the cyclical rebirth of the phoenix, Brown had to rise out of the ashes of depression many times.
Brown said he feels there is a reason he’s survived.
“In Afghanistan there was a road,” he said.
“They found an IED [improvised explosive device] halfway up the road. Myself and somebody else went up to investigate it. We decided to counter charge it,” he said. “[We] ran back on the hill. Got behind the rocks. It blew up and then we said we should probably sweep the road. We just ran down, and so we swept it, and sure enough we found an IED at the bottom of the road and there was a, you could see our footprints. You could see where we had stepped, and one of us had stepped right before it, over it, and after it. That device would have killed both of us had either of us stepped on the pressure plate.
“I have survived a war, the car accident, the [attempted] suicides, I believe I have survived all of this because my purpose is to inspire others positively to get through the hardships of life.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.