MIGHTY 25: Stacy Pearsall uses storytelling for healing
Serving in the military is a family business, according to Stacy Pearsall and for her, it became a lifetime of dedication.
“I’ve had family members serving since all the way back to the Revolutionary War on one side and World War I on the other. My sister was the first woman to serve in our family because I dragged my feet a bit,” she laughed. “I enlisted in 1997 after graduating from high school in South Dakota when things were relatively calm. The plan was to see the world so I put all these overseas assignments down on my list and I ended up in Nebraska.”
Pearsall met a combat cameraman early on and began trying to figure out how she could do it. Despite initial orders, she’d end up in England within months working intelligence.
“When I got stationed abroad, I started trying to build a portfolio. I was a crap photographer though I was pretty creative and always had been relatively artistic but I lacked the technical acumen to put one with the other,” she explained.
Despite her inexperience, when a spot opened up in combat camera – she applied and got the position in July of 2001. Before she could be transferred back to the States for her training, America was attacked.
“They put me through the paces. Close quarters, combat training, tactical driving, and having me operate satellite systems downrange to get the image transmitted back digital photography, which was something new to me. I had always worked in film. I had a big learning curve but I had a lot of fun,” Pearsall said. And that was the best time of my life in terms of career. They also sent me to Syracuse University and I deployed all around the world. I think I averaged about 280 days a year on the road, between TDY and had three combat deployments.”
In 2003, she was named Military Photographer of the Year. A year later, she was hit by an IED.
“I had to do some rehabbing to get back to flight status but I did it,” Pearsall added. “Then I deployed to a couple of other places before going back to Iraq again, got hit by another improvised explosive device and then had a pretty bad injury during a firefight one night. It was really just sort of a culmination of all of those injuries stacked on top of each other.”
She began having difficulty feeling her fingers and gripping the camera. Shortly after, painful tremors started. While on a deployment, she finally went to medical. Testing revealed significant injury and she’d be sent to Germany for treatment before being sent back home.
Though her husband, also in combat camera, was able to help initially – he was eventually redeployed. Pearsall would have to rely on her unit to help her get to medical appointments since she couldn’t drive.
“There were many times when I was driving my car thinking I should just drive it into this overpass and be done with it. That's kind of where I was,” Pearsall admitted. “I didn't belong to the Air Force family. I didn't belong to the veteran family. The majority of the veterans, my peers, were three times older than me and they were male. When I would go to the VA, I felt so marginalized.”
She’d be catcalled or worse, be told she was such a sweetheart to bring her dad to his appointments.
“The veterans were predominantly male and the doctors weren’t prepared to treat me or have me explain getting blown up or how an ambush nearly crippled me,” Pearsall said.
On one VA visit, she’d been waiting over two hours for her neurologist and was not in the best mood. Pearsall saw an elderly gentleman in a volunteer vest with a broad smile on his face.
“I was just thinking about telling him to take his smile and just shove it. He came and sat next to me. I could tell he wanted to talk, so I had a choice. I asked if he needed something and his face just lit up. Next thing I knew he was telling me all about being a World War II veteran,” she shared. “This is one of those sort of epiphanies. I thought everybody was prejudiced against me because of my gender because of my age. I didn't fit in. Here I was so engrossed in my own little sphere of loathing that I didn't realize everybody else is in that same crappy boat, waiting for their doctors and the guy sitting next to me was a national treasure.”
Thinking about all the things her doctors kept telling her she’d never do again, Pearsall had an idea.
“I went to the Public Affairs Office there and I met with Michael Dukes. I said, ‘Hey, got this wild idea. I'd like to set up a studio at the VA and while veterans are wasting hours waiting for doctors, maybe they'll come and let me take their portraits and archive their stories’. That first year, I ended up taking 300 portraits,” she said.
She noticed that not only was she having fun and finding purpose again but the veterans were changing, too.
“No one ever talked to them, especially the Vietnam guys. I went to a transition house for homeless veterans that year and while I was taking pictures, one guy stayed off in the wings. The other veterans told me he was ‘really messed up’ and didn’t really talk,” Pearsall explained. “I was packing up for the day when he walked over and pointed, clearly asking for me to take his picture. He didn’t talk but when we finished he hugged me and said thank you. That’s when I knew.”
Her time in the military was preparing her for this moment and this project. It would not only bring about healing through storytelling for the veterans, but for her too. And it was just the start.
“I set this lofty goal of photographing veterans in every single state. I started in 2008 and finished in Nebraska on Veterans Day in 2019,” she said.
Over 1500 veterans would have their photos taken and their stories archived.
“During that journey I learned that many veterans regardless of where they were from or where they lived, were facing the same issues. I think there's a disconnect between us and them and us being the veteran community and then being everyone who supports them,” Pearsall said. “The last thing most veterans want to do is lay their burdens on the ones they love. I mean, especially if it's combat-related or MST that it's already painful enough.”
She sat down with a friend to discuss the Veterans Portrait Project and what she’d gleaned from the years-long endeavor. Pearsall wanted to take the idea of storytelling to television. Despite a short delay caused by the pandemic, After Action became highly successful and was picked up by PBS.
“We just got done filming season two and my mantra is to save lives. It's about lifting the veil on the military experience,” she explained. “As painful as it is, sometimes you just have to be vulnerable, and know that you're the one closest to you is likely the one who's going to help you through it the most.”
These days you can find Pearsall hanging out with her service dog, living life and healing. One story at a time.