Built Tough: A Female Soldier’s Story

December 5, 2011  


by Amanda Oldham


As the needle pierces her skin, Mercedes Barnett refuses to flinch.  Her sister Amber, however, cringes comically as the tattoo artist finishes the piece with a flourish.  The two now share the same mark, an infinity symbol and the words “Built Tough” shine out just under their ribs, under the heart.

This wasn’t the older sister Mercedes’ first time in The Dragon’s Breath.  The first time was for the Halloween special spider skull on her left shoulder blade.  The second was right before she was deployed overseas.  Four roses wrap themselves in a chain around her right forearm, each containing a reminder of why she was going to Iraq.  A yellow for Texas, another for her family and red for her friends, who now have their own circle of roses.

“The one that looks pink is for Maryann,” she said, “but it isn’t pink.  It’s magenta.  Just like this one’s not purple, it’s blurple.”

Army MP Private Barnett, 22 and fresh from her first six month stint in Iraq, has been home almost two weeks and has seen her sister rope for her rodeo team twice, argued over how all music now has a house, trance background beat and has drunk more Coke from a bottle than she’s had in almost a year.  But this is the moment she cherishes.

“When you get a tattoo with someone, it really builds a bond between you and that person because it is a painful experience that you’re sharing for a reason,” Barnett said.

Duty and Respect

She found a friend in Specialist Hummel.  Camp Cropper was far from her Corpus Christi roots and North Texas home and real friends were hard to come by.  They shared each others’ secrets in a time where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell still hung over the heads and minds of the armed forces but meant much more to Hummel and Barnett, who are themselves Military Police.

Barnett, who is bisexual, maintains a level of ambiguity in her unit on the subject even after the repeal.  But during the days when it was all hushed, the two found ways to keep each other going.  As Barnett rose early in the hours most people would still call night, she would search for a way to pull aside the second shift Hummel to ask “Hey, are you okay?”

“There are few people you can talk to about those things,” she said.

She feels the repeal is a good step forward, but it’s not quite enough.  She gets flustered, a tense look in her eye when thinking about how those who do come out and get married are denied benefits.  A slap in the face, she calls it, considering most of the soldiers are not as prejudiced.

“There are always cheap shots at gays and the briefings are a joke, but in the end everyone knows and no one cares,” Barnett said.  “The general consensus is: as long as they can shoot, we don’t care.  It overrides whatever a person might do.”

A Visit Home

When she got permission to go on leave, Barnett timed it so she would be home for Amber’s eighteenth birthday.  Eighteen is a monumental year for the Barnett family – the last birthday celebrated – and she was determined to surprise her sister at the airport. The little sister, under the impression she and her mother were meeting one of Barnett’s friends who had a package for them, burst into tears when she watched her sister running towards her out of the terminal.

They hugged, they cried and the little sister was hysterical.

“That’s so mean!” She shouted over and over about the wicked trick.  “That’s so mean!”

Barnett didn’t immediately tell her that she was supposed to be home sooner.  The original leave date had been set for early September but continued to be pushed back until the plane touched down at noon on Sept. 28, the day after Amber’s birthday.

“To say I was upset would be a vast understatement,” Barnett said.

With the red tape behind her for a little while, she spends most of her time with her family, who until she enlisted she had helped support financially.

For four years, she worked at Arby’s, moving up the chain, and had been in line for a promotion.  When you’re 23, they had said, you’ll be making six figures.  The Armed Forces had always been an interest, sitting at the back of her mind all of these years, but the pay drop meant less money for her family, which had been torn apart in a harsh divorce only a few years before.

Stepping Up

The shootings at Fort Hood changed her mind.

“I had all of this anger that something had happened that was so close to home that I couldn’t prevent,” she said.

So she walked into that office and signed herself up for basic training.

Her friends keep close to her heart.  The flowers spiraling her arm act as a constant reminder of the friends who sit at home and await her safe return time and time again.  They recall fondly the times Barnett is around to fight off any negative thoughts dangling in the air.


“The first week she came home, Mercedes came up to have dinner with me,” Maryann Posada, who played clarinet beside Barnett in high school marching band, said.  Posada laughs at Barnett’s fumbling attempt to talk with the cute waitress.  “I wasn’t much help since I kept giggling the whole time and making her nervous.”

But the fear still surrounds them when the plane wheels leave the runway.

“Being where she is in Iraq, it’s scary” Posada said.  “I always freak out when I hear something on the news.  I’m not religious but I always pray that she is ok.”

A Different World

Barnett is one of the few people who have seen every angle of Al Asad Air Base, having worked at both night and day shifts at Compound 5 and Compound 7.  The compounds all held detainees of the Iraqi government.  Barnett reminds herself that they must be called detainees, and not prisoners.

“They are not prisoners because they have not yet been to court.  You can’t be a prisoner without a charge,” she said.  “I made that mistake in my reports once.”

She plays nice with the prisoners, meeting their demands for water in the concrete facility that reaches 120 degrees on a good day.  The air base lives in the shadow of Abu Ghraib, which stands not very far away.  In her everyday routine, Barnett had a constant reminder of the disgrace that the United States is unable to escape, where the smallest mistake will bring back the same response of anger.

As a sophomore in high school, she had watched the Abu Ghraib story break on her teacher’s television during a passing period.  She had paid little attention then.

“I heard people say ‘How could anyone do that?’ But now I understand that urge to get back,” Barnett said.  “It’s a different world to go through.” The detainees, she said, “use any means available to manipulate at the risk of any and all in the compound.”

In a post-Guantanamo Bay world, soldiers tip toe their way through the detention process.  They give detainees what they want rather than be the strict enforcers, providing the soldiers with a mental role reversal.

“The detainees are like the guard force and we are the prisoners of rules and regulations.  I wish people could understand that it’s a war within our heads as well,” Barnett said.

For another few days, she doesn’t have to worry about being accused of breaking the Geneva Convention.   She still sleeps in three hour cycles, unable to sleep much longer from restlessness and nightmares, but she manages to fill her days with everything she has missed.

“Having my own bathroom is amazing.  I can pee in peace,” Barnett said.  “I’m more acutely aware of the freedoms I had after they were taken away.”

A Permanent Reminder

The identical tattoos are the final touch to her vacation.  She will return to Iraq, for how long she doesn’t know, with another reminder of what keeps her moving.

“I got to choose the location [of the tattoo and] I chose the ribs, she freaked,” Amber said.

The tattoo artist is unsure about their plan.  He thinks that they are crazy for wanting them on the ribs, but Amber insists. “Go hard or go home!” she repeats until he gives in.

“Yeah, that’s my sister for you,” Barnett said.

Amber goes first, fidgeting for the fifteen minutes that felt like an hour.

“I was scared if I saw [Mercedes] hurting, I’d chicken out,” Amber said.  “Afterwards, she was making fun of me, saying I was a baby but she was practically crying!”

Barnett leaves the shop with her little sister in tow and shouts her latest catch-phrase.  In the first 12 hours of being stateside, she shouted this phrase 30 times.

“I love this country!”

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