Former Air Force combat photog re-imagines 'veteran' to include women

Elizabeth Howe
November 19, 2018 - 10:32 am

Stacy Pearsall visited the Women in Military Service for America Memorial as an 18-year-old new enlistee and wondered what her military career would amount to. Twenty years later, she stood on a stage in the memorial and opened an exhibit of her Veterans Portrait Project.

Pearsall enlisted in the Air Force in 1997 before spending her entire career as a combat photographer — a career she believes chose her.

"As a combat photographer I would travel all over the world and photograph military stories, whatever that meant — whether it was humanitarian support missions like building schools and drilling wells or, as the name implies, photographing combat," said Pearsall. "I have no regrets. I think sometimes things choose you and photography was one of those for me." 

For years, Pearsall worked to portray the human experience of military personnel in combat. 

"We tend to look at a military uniform and think of it as signifying invincibility — like it's an impenetrable armor. I wanted to tell the story of the human beings inside that armor and really drill down on the interpersonal relationships that are developed and maintained in combat," Pearsall said. "I wanted to honor each person as an individual because we also think of the military as this united front — and it's one of the most beautiful parts of the organization — but we tend to overlook the individual contributors."

Pearsall focused on the stories and experiences inside the uniform and behind the combat. She made sure to photograph individual troops before going on patrols in case they didn't come home. But her military career ended earlier than she thought it would. 

"I truly believe I was meant to be a combat photographer and that I was meant to do 20 plus years in the service. So when my injuries abruptly ended that career, I had a really hard time accepting that," Pearsall said. 

Pearsall found herself coping with physical pain, an intense regiment of medications, a crisis of purpose, and the alienation that comes with being a female veteran.

"I felt abandoned. I felt alienated because as a young woman, I stuck out at the VA. People always looked at me like I was there with my husband or my grandfather or I was VA staff. I felt marginalized," Pearsall said.

It was during one of these VA visits that Pearsall encountered a veteran who changed her perspective and, in part, inspired what would become the Veteran Portrait Project.

"I thought for sure he was looking at me like a piece of meat, frankly. My mind wanted to pounce on him," Pearsall said of the elderly male veteran staring at her in a VA waiting room. She resisted the temptation to pounce and instead asked if she could help him with something. 

"His face lit up and he began to tell me about how he survived Normandy and liberated a concentration camp," Pearsall said. "I thought he was prejudiced against me. But in that moment, I was prejudiced against him. I needed to realize that we all have our own experiences which impact the way we view things."

Pearsall realized that experience matters, and — as a journalist — she could tell those stories, regardless of what the world was telling her she could or could not do.

"I could either accept other people's views of the world or push that all aside and live my own life regardless of what people were telling me I could and couldn't do," Pearsall said. "In that moment, I realized — I'm a journalist damn it. I need to tell people his story. He's exceptional. I looked around at the VA and saw all these other amazing human beings with stories too."

Ten years later, Pearsall has photographed veterans in 29 states and has been impacted by every single one. 

"The most extraordinary part of it is, with every veteran I've photographed and connected with — they leave an impact with me...it was validating my experience because they had emotions they were grappling with. My experience wasn't unique. I think that was very healing and very cathartic," Pearsall said.

Pearsall was also featured as part of the Changing the Face of Courage campaign — a social media fundraising campaign launched on Veterans Day. Her all female photo exhibit perfectly complemented the campaign's efforts to raise funds for the memorial's day to day operations.

"It's an incredible group of women. I think often times when people say the word veteran it's not a woman that's conjured in their mind's eye. I believe this exhibition along with WIMSA's intitative, Changing the Face of Courage, will redefine and reimagine the veteran. For me that's really important," Pearsall said.

"I feel very honored to be part of this. It's very emotional," said Navy veteran Elise Hummel next to her portrait in the exhibit. "I believe in everything Stacy is doing, changing the face of what people see as a veteran. People look at me and they don't see veteran. I think that events like these can change what people see when they think of veteran."

"At the time, I had no idea just how special this was," said retired Colonel Peggy Newman. "I realized just how phenomenal Stacy is. It's an opportunity to appreciate what she does and the gift she's given every veteran she can encourage to get their pictures taken."

"There was a time when I thought the value of my life was based on my service and the length and the achievements I made during that service," said Pearsall. "But frankly, when I got out my realization was that I was only going to be as successful as I allowed myself to be after service. Everyone told me all the things I couldn't do and I believed that for a long time. Now, I have travelled to 29 states out of 50 — over halfway to my goal. We can adapt. We can adapt to a new normal and really excel."

Read more about Pearsall's story and view her portfolios here.