Most nights, pretending to be dead was the only way to get some sleep.
Holed up in a vacated house or apartment in war-devastated Fallujah, Iraq, Matt Ranbarger had to find a way to counteract the stress of a combat zone.
He and his fellow Marines would spend the day hunting and fighting enemy insurgents door-to-door through the city streets, stopping at the last house they cleared to hole up for the night.
They had booby-trapped and barricaded the house. But for all they knew, the enemy was right next door.
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“Paranoia would seep through,” Ranbarger said. “Sometimes you had to convince yourself that you were already dead, that the enemy was going to come slit your throat anyway, so you might as well get some sleep.”
For three months, Ranbarger and his fellow members of the 1st Battalion 3rd Marines fought in vicious and deadly urban combat, the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War.
Ranbarger has used his experience — both the lingering horrors of battle and his mental, emotional and physical recovery — to help raise awareness of troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He works with area veterans groups to speak about the effects combat trauma can have years and decades after service.
Opening up about his service and struggles has been extremely beneficial, Ranbarger said. His goal is to ensure that veterans understand that the scars of battle can be unseen and to help the world understand the disorder.
“Veterans with PTSD still have a lot to give. Something made them great to join and fight. That doesn’t die or disappear,” he said.
ALWAYS HIS CALLING
Joining the military was never a question for Ranbarger. He grew up in a small rural town in Iowa, where organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars were a central part of the community.
Two brothers, J.D. and Mark, served in the Marine Corps. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins all served in the armed services, including the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Ranbarger’s family moved from Iowa to Greenwood when he was 15. He enlisted in the Marines when he was 17 and, after graduating from Whiteland Community High School, shipped off to boot camp in August 2003.
He was assigned to 1st Battalion 3rd Marines and stationed at Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii.
“I’ve moved a lot throughout my life, and there’s a different mentality everywhere I’ve been. But it wasn’t too hard to adapt to, going from a town of 300 in Iowa to Greenwood to Hawaii,” he said.
Ranbarger’s battalion was part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, a projection force that has historically been one of the first to move into a combat zone. In July 2004, he shipped out for Okinawa, Japan, then to Kuwait, where his unit trained for more than a month for desert warfare.
The battalion was in the air on a transport plane before being told they were headed to Iraq in October 2004. Initially, the Marines were assigned to outpost duty in the Al Anbar Province, a large swath of territory in the western part of the country.
Moving through the barren wasteland of Iraq, the battalion would convert drainage ditches or pumphouses into fortifications where the soldiers could live.
“It was strange. We specialized in jungle warfare in Hawaii. We never had cultural training for Iraq, and no one in our unit had combat experience before that,” Ranbarger said.
The situation became even more unfamiliar when the battalion received orders to head to Fallujah.
A city of about 350,000 on the banks of the Euphrates River, Fallujah had fallen into the hands of Iraqi insurgents in early 2004. During the next six months, they turned the houses, schools, businesses and other buildings into a complex fortification.
The U.S. response was code-named Operation Phantom Fury. The 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, along with a handful of other Marine battalions, were the primary attacking force in the battle.
“We staged outside of the city, then when night fell, we invaded,” Ranbarger said. “We were going street by street, house by house, room by room, clearing it out.”
For the first few days of the assault, the Marines pushed into the center of the city. No one slept or rested; the fighting was the most intense of any battle in the Iraq War.
The work was methodical. Marines stopped at every building and went through each individual room, clearing it of enemy soldiers. No one knew what to expect when they kicked open the doors and burst into each space.
One night, Ranbarger’s squad of 15 Marines burst into a house where 31 insurgents were waiting. A vicious firefight ensued.
“We’d finish one room and move on to the next. Every so often, we’d be ambushed, so there was always that to consider,” Ranbarger said. “That was our life for three months.”
Nerves were frayed and wire-taut. The only way they could mentally balance was to have a sense of humor within the unit, as Marines told dark jokes to try and lighten the mood, he said.
‘WANTED TO BE A PART’
Ranbarger was injured during his time in Fallujah, after nearly severing his finger on a jagged piece of metal on a door handle. He was evacuated out of the battle zone to get stitched up, but after learning that the Marines were making another push into enemy territory, he and another Marine sneaked out of the hospital and hitchhiked on military convoys back into the city.
“It’s one of those things where, if there was a new push in the city, we wanted to be a part of it,” Ranbarger said.
When Fallujah was in control of U.S. forces, Ranbarger and his unit were reassigned to other locations, including guarding the humanitarian aid center at the city’s soccer fields once residents started returning to their homes.
Ranbarger and his unit finished their deployment in Iraq by mid- February 2005.
“It was unreal when we finally found out we were leaving. You’re carrying all of this gear, but you want to jump up and down and celebrate,” he said. “You can’t believe you survived.”
Though he physically had made it through combat, Ranbarger found that his wounds ran deep. Almost immediately after leaving Iraq, he began suffering depression, insomnia, avoidance of other people, and other aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The countless explosions going off all around him for four months injured his brain, making him extra sensitive to light and noise. He wears dark sunglasses nearly all of the time.
“I wasn’t the same person when I came back,” he said.
With his military service over, Ranbarger returned to Indiana to obtain bachelor’s degrees in history and anthropology. The struggle to recover from PTSD made it increasingly difficult to function in his daily life. Not until he started sharing his story and talking about what he went through did his symptoms wane.
“One of my friends just helped me open up and talk about it,” he said. “I had to become an advocate for PTSD.”
HIS NEW MISSION
That mission has partially been realized with the release of “The November War,” a documentary about the Marines who fought in Fallujah. The film was created by a member of Ranbarger’s platoon and features him and his fellow Marines in footage shot themselves during the fighting.
“The November War” is centered around the fighting on Nov. 22, 2004, one of the final major skirmishes before the city was secured. The film segues from that battle into the aftereffects for the soldiers who took part.
“It was very important for me to document everything. While I was overseas, I kept a journal. I took pictures with an old disposable camera,” Ranbarger said. “We need to keep what happened in the historical record and that we’re human and this is what happened to us.”
Ranbarger has made himself available to any veterans group or other organization that wants him to come in and talk about his trauma. He’s given speeches throughout the state and worked to change the impression the military and the public had about post-traumatic stress disorder.
When he was going through his lowest period after returning from Iraq, Ranbarger felt like PTSD was a “coward’s disease,” he said.
“No one knew what we went through in Fallujah at that time. So I was treated like crap, spit on, called a coward by people who had never deployed,” he said. “I went through a lot, and I don’t want other people to suffer.”
Ranbarger is medically retired, and he works for the state government on policy issues. He is a member of the new VFW post in the White River Township area and has found value in gathering together as veterans for both support and camaraderie.
While he is a veteran and much of his audience has military experience, Ranbarger’s message is universal.
“Post-traumatic stress is not just a veterans issue. Anyone can suffer it,” he said. “These are still the people you know. It’s nothing to alienate or ostracize people. It can be managed.”
Who: Matt Ranbarger
Wife: Amy Ranbarger
Military branch: U.S. Marine Corps
Service: 2003 to 2005
Unit: 1st Battalion 3rd Marines
Education: 2003 graduate of Whiteland Community High School; 2013 graduate of IUPUI with bachelor’s degrees in history and anthropology