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Clayton M. Rankin

Colorado Army National Guard / Bronze Star with Valor

After eliminating a terrorist out to kill 300 US soldiers, he now battles a tougher foe – stress

Clay Rankin, a police officer in suburban Denver, knew what it was like to kill even before he was sent to the Middle East in the first Gulf War. He and a fellow officer fatally shot a man who had taken a pharmacy clerk hostage in 1990.

But a year later, the military police officer returned to his job as a civilian police officer with the Northglenn, Colo., Police Department with grim scenes of burning oil fields and charred bodies stuck in his mind. Old haunts, familiar streets and routine police work were distorted by the memories of war. He had nightmares, anxiety and flashbacks. He un-holstered his gun during routine traffic stops. One night, while sitting in his cruiser in a parking lot and completing paperwork, he heard a noise behind him.

“I opened the door, rolled out on my stomach and took my gun out,” Rankin said. “It was a just a kid walking across the parking lot.”

The department’s psychologist diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rankin didn’t believe it. His symptoms had to be a reaction to the toxin gases he was exposed to during his tour.

“I just chalked it all up — the nightmares, the flashbacks, my over-reactions — to the change, because you never come back the same,” he said.

Although the police chief tried to find an assignment that would take Rankin off the street, it was not possible in a small agency such as Northglenn’s. He had no choice but to retire.

Finally, in 1995, his marriage and family life strained by his recurring symptoms, he went to a veterans administration hospital looking specifically for PTSD treatment. In therapy, he learned techniques to manage his symptoms. His health and personal life improved. He started a private investigation business, which became successful.

But at the start of the second Gulf War, Rankin’s passion for law enforcement led him to join the National Guard as a military police officer. He believed he was well enough to handle redeploying with his old unit to Iraq.

He landed at Camp Udairi, in northern Kuwait at the Iraqi border, just as the ground war began. Standing in line at the PX in March, Rankin waited to get supplies needed to push north when a terrorist in a white pick-up truck plowed through the line.

“Everybody started running for cover except for me,” he said. “I spun around and got in front of the vehicle to pull him away from the soldiers and towards me. He was coming toward me. I was drawing my pistol, loading my clip and chambering a round and preparing to fire. I couldn’t fire on him right away because of the soldiers who were behind him, so I had to wait. He was probably five feet from me and coming at me, and I shot him and kind of dove out of the way and cracked my skull on the ground.”

Rankin doesn’t remember many details that followed, but his colleagues said he chased down the truck as it was coming to a stop, shot the driver twice more and pulled him out.

A month later, Rankin’s unit was escorting military officials around Fallujah. As he was loading a 250-pound Mk-19 grenade launcher on the turret of a truck, he slipped, hitting his head on the turret before landing on his back on a rock on the ground. According to witnesses, he got back up, hoisted the Mk-19 on the truck and finished the mission.

“It’s not like there was a doctor around the corner,” Rankin recalled. “Unless you lost an arm or a leg, you just didn’t run to the doctor. All I knew is that the pain kept getting worse in my body.”

And that’s when he started doing what he calls “the crazy stuff.”

Rankin cleared dangerous buildings by himself instead of getting help from fellow soldiers. He played chicken with vehicles on Route Tampa, the main north-south highway, by standing in the middle of the road and pointing his pistol.

“I would have shot them if they didn’t stop,” he said.

Rankin’s superiors sent him to a psychiatrist at a nearby airbase. For the second time, Rankin was diagnosed with PTSD — but this time the doctor said it was “acute.” He was sent home and again went to the veterans administration for help.

He is among the thousands of vets who have returned home from Iraq or Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress. Although he received a Bronze Star with Valor for his actions at Camp Udairi and is credited with saving 300 lives in that terrorist attack, facing up to his illness and learning to manage it could be considered his most heroic act.

And he struggles with coming to grips with his service and medal.

“You know what’s crazy about all of this is that they never gave me a medal for saving people’s lives, but they sure gave them to me for taking someone’s life,” he said. “Of course they claimed that I saved 300 lives, but I don’t buy that.”

He has had biofeedback therapy, a technique that taught him how his body responds to stress and how to control his breathing and heart rate in situations that stress him. And he agreed to take medication for depression, stress and anxiety.

He also decided he needed a total change in environment and moved his family to West Virginia, where there were fewer stress triggers.

Two years ago Rankin met Archie, a black Labrador retriever trained to help him with everyday mobility issues that stem from the back injury when he fell off the truck in Iraq. Archie also knows how to calm Rankin when a flashback sets in and can rouse him from nightmares.

“You manage PTSD, you never get over it,” he said. “But I am OK with that. I have learned how to manage it and how to create an environment where I can function and even thrive.”

Kris Antonelli is a freelance journalist living in Maryland. As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun from 1989 to 2000, her assignments included covering the U.S. Naval Academy.

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Clay Rankin and his specially trained dog, Archie, take a break from an Army Wounded Warrior Program training seminar in Washington, D.C. Archie, a Labrador Retriever, was donated to Rankin by the nonprofit group Patriot Paws, which matches disabled veterans with dogs trained to help them manage daily life. (Photo courtesy of Clay Rankin)

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Clayton M. Rankin

Colorado Army National Guard / Bronze Star with Valor

Born in 1961 in the Denver area but will not reveal the exact date due to concerns about identity theft.

Married for 25 years; three children.

Joined the Army in 1979 as a military police officer and stayed until 1982. Volunteered as a Reservist — 220th Military Police Company, Colorado National Guard — and first deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1990. Deployed with the same unit to Iraq in 2003.

Credited with saving 300 lives by shooting a terrorist who plowed through a commissary in a vehicle.

Retired as an MP sergeant, he lives in West Virginia and works as an advocate with the Army Wounded Warrior Program, helping veterans readjust to civilian life.

“All I have ever wanted to do was serve my country and my community. Despite my injuries and everything that has happened, I wouldn't change a thing. I would do it all over again.”

Iraq / Camp Udairi, Kuwait

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