"When you're young, you have this sense of invincibility, " says Stacy Pearsall. "You can hear the gunshots, but they can't touch you." Pearsall is a former Air Force Combat Photojournalist who spent much of her storied ten-year Air Force career assigned to the 1st Combat Camera Squadron in Charleston South Carolina. Her awards include the Bronze Star, Air Medal, and Air Force Commendation Medal with Valor. She is one of two women to win Military Photographer of the Year and the only woman to win it twice. She has an honorary doctoral degree from The Citadel and was declared a Champion of Change by the White House.
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During her first Iraq deployment in 2003, then-23-year-old Pearsall documented everything from Blackhawk helicopter sorties to foot patrols with Army infantry units on the ground. This would be the cornerstone of an epic that would impact thousands of veterans from across the US and around the globe.
"Throughout my deployment I photographed a civil affairs mission to rebuild a bombed out school where Saddam's wife once taught," Pearsall reflects. "We targeted it during "shock and awe" because Ba'athists used it as a headquarters. When we were gearing up for the convoy, there was one open seat in the lead vehicle and one in the rear. My partner and I drew straws to see who would sit where. As we departed the school, an IED buried under piles of debris detonated near my vehicle, sending projectiles and dust everywhere. It was fortunate the bomb wasn't bigger. Everyone walked away that day."
She waited to seek medical attention until she returned to the Air Force's Camp Sather. She'd seen far worse wounds and didn't want to make a big deal about whiplash and some blood in her ears. She played down her injuries and continued to document missions nearly every day until the end of her deployment.
"Suffice to say I slammed a lot of vitamin M," Pearsall recalls.
Like many blast traumas, it was the injuries she couldn't see that followed her home from deployment. Once back home in Charleston, Pearsall was cooking dinner and suddenly fell over. Her world was off-kilter and she couldn't stand upright. Doctors thought her injuries gave way to viruses so she underwent the treatment for that with little to no relief. Today, a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury (TBI) would've been more likely. For Pearsall, that diagnosis would not come for another five years.
"So I learned to deal with the vertigo and headaches," Pearsall says. Despite the chronic headaches and neck pain, she continued her Air Force photojournalism career. Her work earned her Military Photographer of the Year (MPOY) in 2003, an annual award, open to all military personnel. During the judging, the panel referred to Stacy as 'he'. They did not do it years later, when she won for the second time.
While supporting Operation Enduring Freedom Horn of Africa, she teamed up with combat videographer Staff Sergeant Katie Robinson, an Air Force Reservist who would eventually become Pearsall's battle buddy for life. The two worked to deploy together at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Warhorse, near Baqubah, Iraq.
Despite a mud-floored CHU with a leaky roof and a critical satellite transmitter sitting in a pool of water, set out to prove they could hang with the soldiers at Warhorse.
"I was never faced with anything regarding my competency because I am a female," Pearsall says. Initially, everyone was apprehensive because I was a photographer. I caught earfuls of inter-service rivalry for being Air Force but after our first firefight, word got around that I was worth having around. Instead of seeking them out, they started asking for our support."
FOB Warhorse proved to be the right place for action. The Battle of Baqubah was the last major offensive of the Iraq War and would last seven months. Having freedom to do so, Pearsall and Robinson moved around the AOR documenting one key mission after another.
"I put those soldiers on a pedestal," Pearsall reveals. "They are still today, my personal heroes to whom owe my life."
Pearsall and Robinson were supposed to accompany Delta Company into Baqubah on a raid to take down a house harboring enemy fighters. At the last minute, they were transferred to an Iraqi Army operation in nearby Buhriz. As they prepared for their new assignment, they listened to their friends' progress as the reports trickled in.
"As the breach team moved in, the house blew," Pearsall remembers. "The Bradleys came back to the FOB and began unloading the injured. The soldiers were a mess. We looked for our friends, but couldn't see them. Then the last Bradley dropped ramp and unloaded those who were killed in action. Blue Platoon lost three really great guys that day. The rest of their team had to soldier on. Katie and I did too. We still had to go out and meet the Iraqi Army for our next operation."
The two were split up between two Iraqi Army companies, with the idea they'd link back up in a few days. That was the plan, anyway.
"They shot my fucking thumb off!" Robinson said the minute she was struck by a nearby sniper. The sniper was aiming for an officer sitting next to Robinson. The bullet went through her left forearm, through her video camera and exploded the battery, which partially amputated her right thumb.
"I laughed when I heard that," Pearsall remembers. "That's what made us so close. Our collective humor, our unwavering bond, our utmost respect for each other." When given the opportunity to redeploy home and rehab back in the United States, Robinson refused. Instead, she opted to return to FOB Warhorse.
"For me, the rest of the deployment was intense, just like that," Pearsall says. "So many good soldiers taken so quickly, so young. Photographing the rare moments between gunfights was my favorite thing to do. It was my sense of home, of humanity."
Toward the end of her deployment, Pearsall further injured her neck during an operation. Robinson finally convinced her to see a doctor. An x-ray led to a CAT scan and more tests. Doctors concluded she needed surgery. For Pearsall, that was not an option. She wanted to leave Iraq on her own terms.
"Katie was strong. I wanted to remain strong too," Pearsall says. I already lived with the pain for so long, one flight home wasn't going to kill me. It was the one thing I could control in a situation that seemed out of my control."
"My neck wouldn't heal enough for me to stay in the military," Pearsall explains. "It was devastating. They offered alternatives, like admin or finance. But after you've tasted combat, you can't go back. If I couldn't fight, what was I supposed to do? My career in the military was over."
"One day, while waiting for an appointment at my VA hospital, a World War II veteran leaned over and asked if I was taking my grandfather to his doctor's appointment. He seemed surprised to learn I was a veteran. He told me how he helped liberate a concentration camp during WWII and I realized that I judged him unfairly – just as everyone was doing to me. So I set about healing myself through the experiences of other veterans."
Now her mission continues. First on her mind is a portrait project, photographing veterans from every conflict and preserving their stories their image for generations to come.
"I had the honor of photographing the last living pictures of soldiers on the battlefield," she says. "And I wanted to continue that service to my fellow veterans."
Her work and personal recovery, isn't limited to her portrait project. There were some whose stories could no longer be told firsthand. In 2012, she published Shooter: Combat From Behind the Camera, a book of her Iraq War imagery.
"I couldn't look at my photos without having an emotional response," she says. "I wanted to put what happened on a page and shelve it, so I wouldn't have to live that part of my life every day anymore. Shooter was my therapy. It was my way of honoring those who didn't have a voice anymore, to share their experience with the world."
Her second book, A Photojournalist's Field Guide was published in 2013. Along with contributions from her heavy–hitter photojournalist friends, Pearsall created a guide to educate younger photographers. The book isn't limited to photography tips. It includes insight on how to survive in austere conditions, cope with stress and maneuver through tough situations.
"I'm not the first woman to go into combat for the United States," Pearsall explains. "There are a whole slew of women who fought for this country. Unfortunately, they're not spoken much of in the history books."
Not anymore. Pearsall's project will ensure history won't forget any veteran who fought for the U.S., regardless of gender.