Iraq War veteran helps veterans find freedom through Virginia boat club

Veterans Voices

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — When Andy Sutter was a teenager in New York, a family member told him he should join the U.S. Navy. It was a suggestion that Sutter took to heart, even though it went against the grain of service in his family.

“My grandfather was in the Army. My dad was in the Army. I joined the Navy,” Sutter said.

He laughs when he says it, but that decision to join the Navy in 1988 changed the course of Sutter’s life. At 19, he made the trip to Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in in the world. The retired Navy senior chief had no idea when he started his military career the challenges and accomplishments that awaited him.

“You know when we talk about it and we talk about the history, I still get choked up a little bit about it,” Sutter said as he sat on a boat looking at the historic Battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk.

His first deployment was in 1991 aboard USS Biddle, part of the historic Wisconsin Battle Group. One of his jobs while on USS Biddle was to make sure no enemies followed American crews back after bombing runs.

Over the years, Sutter was deployed multiple times.

“Going to Iraq almost got to the point where it was second nature,” he said.

His one constant was his wife, Janet.

“My wife is amazing, and any military spouse is also amazing because you can’t do this job without having a solid foundation,” he said. “Knowing that the house was taken care of, everything was taken care of. I could go and focus on the mission and come home and everything was taken care of.”

While his family life was solid, his career path was about to change. He was standing watch on the USS Anzio in the middle of the night when he saw a magazine that included information on the U.S. Navy Hovercraft program.

“I got off watch that night and went down to the guy, the naval career counselor, and I said, ‘Hey can I do this job,” Sutter said. “He looked at all of my scores and he said, ‘Yeah. You can do it.’ So, I put a request in to go to Navy hovercraft and I did Navy hovercrafts for 14 years.”

While flying Navy Hovercraft, Sutter completed the Thunder Valley Patrol.

“It was the first time Navy hovercraft were used to protect the Iraqi Oil terminals.”

He also took on a mission in an area called Um-Kassar to test if the hovercraft could make it through tight waterways.

“That was a very trying time. You’re flying in, off the coast of Iran and Kuwait with another hovercraft in tandem. No channel markers, no buoys. You’re on night-vision goggles, and you’re flying up to some place that you’ve never been before,” Sutter said. “It’s very narrow. We’re under the darkness of night. We’re going to a place that we’ve never been before with mine danger areas.”

In 2005, Andy’s career took him to Jordan, on board the USS Ashland.

“We were working with Jordan’s Army, the Marines. We had to do an event. We do all these multi-national events and we pulled in with the Kearsarge, and we were hanging out, high threat area. We couldn’t leave the pier, so we were doing beer on the pier,” Sutter said. “We had battle of the bands. The bands were out there messing around and we went to bed that night.  I woke up the next morning and I heard what sounded like a big, huge trash can or dumpster getting dumped onto the ground.”

Sutter quickly learned it wasn’t a dumpster. It was a missile.

“The missile went over and missed the ship. It hit the building. It killed a Jordanian officer. They were pulling the high value asset out which was the Kearsarge and they left us there in case we had to take fire,” he said. “They were pulling the Kearsarge off and you could see right where it hit the warehouse and we didn’t know what the heck was going on, except we had just came under this attack.”

The training they did paid off as the soldiers reacted to the attack, Sutter said.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand all of the training that we go through, and you just have to react. You can’t do, you can’t think, you just have to react. Make a decision. We can fix a bad decision, but you can’t fix indecision,” he added.

No American lives were lost in the attack. All on board the Ashland received the Combat Action Ribbon for their response that day.

In May of 2014, Sutter retired as a Navy senior chief. He says retirement can be challenging for members of the military.

“We’ve spent 26 years of our lives getting up, putting on the same clothing every single day,” Sutter said. “You don’t have to think, right? You get on. You do your job. You come home. You’re somebody. That transition from being somebody in the military to then going into civilian life, even if you have a job, is traumatic.”

In his civilian life, Andy owns the Freedom Boat Club based in Portsmouth, Va.

“It’s just now been over a year. We have 53 memberships. We have almost 100 members and we are growing pretty rapidly,” Sutter said.

His goal is to expand the business and hire veterans and their families.

“Any military person I can get my hands on I would hire in a half a second.”

This once lost teenager found his calling in the Navy. Now as successful businessman, he makes a living on the very waters where he once trained.

“It’s crazy. I mean I look out every single day and go ‘That’s where I started, that’s where I started my career at,’” he said.

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