HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Most people with wounds fresh from pacemaker surgery don’t run marathons. Mary Barnett is not most people.
The 33-year-old Hill Air Force Base program manager and Air Force combat vet lives to do things people tell her aren’t possible.
“I guess it is part of my rebellious nature,” she said. “I think that’s why I’ve been so resilient after everything.”
By “everything” Barnett is mostly referring to the injuries and aftermath of a mortar attack she survived during her first deployment as an F-16 avionics technician at Balad Air Base, Iraq.
Balad was busy, hot and dangerous. The first few minutes after their arrival, Barnett and her fellow Airmen were reacting to the “alarm red” siren, donning their protective gear and “freaking out.”
The team worked 12-hour-shifts, six days on, one day off. The maintainers did their best to ensure jets were always ready to scramble.
“Finally, I felt like I was contributing. This is what my job was,” said Barnett. “We were at war, but we were doing the right thing.”
Balad and adjacent Camp Anaconda were huge targets for the enemy. In a Stars and Stripes story, troops referred to the base as “Mortaritaville.” After a while, Barnett said, the Airmen got used to the constant booms and alarms at all hours of the day and night.
“The enemy didn’t seem to have very sophisticated targeting. Most of the explosions were around the perimeter of the camp, not in Tent City, where we lived, which was in the middle,” Barnett said.
That changed in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2004. A 105mm mortar exploded 50 meters from her as she was carrying her laundry through Tent City on her day off. She felt pressure and heat and was knocked to the ground. Her ears rang from the loudest noise she had ever heard.
“I was stunned. I was expecting to look down and see myself covered in blood, full of shrapnel, but there was nothing,” she said.
Other Airman were severely injured, most notably Senior Airman Brian Kolfage, who lost both legs and his right hand. Kolfage survived and his story was featured in Airman Magazine.
“I see him in my dreams still. His face was very calm, but there was blood everywhere. Other Airmen were doing self-aid buddy care with boot laces and BDU tops until the medics came,” Barnett said.
After the attack, she was nauseous, dizzy and foggy in the head. Her heart felt “floppy.”
The self-professed “tomboy,” whose mother had a special first-aid area set aside for her as a child, didn’t want to say anything. She thought she was just shaken up, scared, full of adrenaline and dehydrated.
When the Airmen gathered in a hardened aircraft shelter for safety, Barnett passed out — not slowly, but like she was shot. Her head slammed against the ground. They couldn’t wake her up.
She was in the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad for a week, “in and out.” The doctors knew something was wrong because Barnett’s heart was beating at a measly 30 beats per minute — not enough to keep her body working. When she tried to stand up, she’d pass out again and again.
She was moved to Landstuhl Hospital in Germany. Barnett was suffering from sudden bradycardia, which means the electrical impulses in her body that control her heart rate weren’t working properly.
Eventually, doctors connected her heart condition to internal damage caused by the wave of blast overpressure. Her heart was structurally sound, but her nerves had been damaged. They knew they needed to install a pacemaker if Barnett was going to live without constant medical care.
She returned to Hill Air Force Base. Back at the 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit, Barnett began life with a pacemaker. It was keeping her alive, but it felt like a ball and chain.
“No mowing the lawn, no cellphone, no driving, no being alone, no working on the flight line, no strenuous activities that would raise my heart rate,” Barnett said. Those were just a few of the things doctors told her she couldn’t do.
As she adjusted to her new life, Barnett suffered from post-traumatic stress and was also diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury — partly from the blast, but mostly because her heart condition deprived her brain of oxygen. She still has memory loss and foggy moments.
Barnett pinned on technical sergeant at the age of 24. She saw herself as a “fast burner” with plans on making chief. But now, she faced a medical-board separation and life apart from the Air Force.
With the help of the Veteran’s Administration’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program, Barnett transitioned from active duty to life in civil service as a program manager in the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center at Hill.
Six months after her first pacemaker surgery, she signed up with co-workers in a Combined Federal Campaign event. She didn’t know it would be a life-defining moment.
“They kept telling me all the things I couldn’t do. I started to go stir crazy. I thought, ‘What do they know? They’re just doctors,’ ” Barnett said.
Her intent was to walk, but after 200 feet, she picked up the pace. It felt good. She joked with her fellow runners that if she collapsed, they should kick her off the side of the track. That is the same type of attitude she had when she wrestled on an all-boys team in middle school. Either she would succeed or she would fail, but she had to try.
Barnett ran through the doubts. She ran right through the “odd sensation” in her chest. She kept running.
“I shouldn’t have been able to run that long, my heart rate was unstable, my brain wasn’t getting enough blood, and my stamina was at an all-time low. But my mind was set on running the entire race, and once I started, there was no stopping me,” she said.
Barnett began training. The running gave her a release. The pain gave her a purpose again. Defeat it.
“I embrace the pain. It keeps me going. It gives me a sense of accomplishment,” Barnett said. “I had many setbacks. Days where I felt weak, lightheaded, exhausted, but pushing through pain is what keeps me going.”
A month after her most recent pacemaker surgery, Barnett and her running partner, husband David, ran four events in one week — a 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon. She has placed first in the women’s category in several races, and her doctor is fully on board with her run for independence.
“I run despite the objections from my body, because mentally I feel invincible,” said Barnett.
Recently, the symptoms of Barnett’s brain injury have been increasing. She’s been told to prepare for a potential decline in her cognitive abilities, seizures and more headaches. She knows that the pacemaker will be part of her for the rest of her life, but by now, she’s used to setting her own pace.
“Mary never gives up. Her determination is the reason I fell in love with her,” said husband David. “There is no stopping her.”
Since Barnett began running, she’s imagined that she’s been running from something. But, to listen to her talk, it sounds like she’s chasing something — not just a runner’s high. She is chasing a desire that’s fundamental to everyone.
“I am free. I have freedom from my past, my limitations, problems, even myself. I go into a zone and daydream,” Barnett said. “I feel most at peace when running, even if it’s through a foot of snow.”
Since her first run, she’s been more active than doctors said she ever could be. She’s had two children. She’s coached soccer in the snow. She’s an avid snowboarder and dirt biker. She loves being outdoors, and living in Utah provides plenty of opportunities.
Most people with pacemakers don’t fulfill their childhood dream to sky-dive. Mary Barnett is not most people.