Stacy Pearsall never wanted to stop being a combat photographer.
When her job ended, she wondered whether life was worth living.
Ms. Pearsall joined the Air Force at age 17 and soon grew eager to photograph American military efforts around the world. But the odds of covering combat were slim, and she knew it. “Somebody had to either die or retire,” she recalled. When a position opened up, it changed her whole world.
The Air Force staff sergeant began training in a program for war photography at Syracuse University. She traveled to more than 40 countries, including places like South Korea and the Horn of Africa. But it was her two rotations in Iraq where she made her deepest mark. Among her many honors include twice being named the National Press Photographers Association’s military photographer of the year. The Pentagon handed out her work documenting the military efforts in Iraq to the media and public on a daily basis. They were republished online, and in newspapers and magazines.
During her first stint, which began in September 2003, assignments varied widely. “One day we were on a raid hunting down one of the face cards,” she recalled, referring to the deck of cards identifying the most wanted officials of Saddam Hussein’s government. “The next day we were shooting a school opening.”
Her second stint centered on 2007’s battle of Baquba. “The fighting I experienced was very extreme,” she said. “In my last deployment, it was an everyday occurrence.”
U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway After hunting down known bombmakers, Ms. Pearsall prepared to document a raid with members of the United States Army in Khalis. Feb. 21, 2007.
She had started her military photo career inspired by noted war photographers like James Nachtwey, Carolyn Cole and Eddie Adams. Ms. Pearsall worked to get into the right spot, take a moment and plan the shot.
“I’m definitely as deliberate as I can be in the circumstances,” she said. “Instead of chasing the action, I’m kind of anticipating where that action is going to happen, taking risks and getting in front of the action so you can be there when it happens.” She tells more about her craft in her newly published second book, “A Photojournalist’s Field Guide.”
Her work took her to the front lines, not common for female soldiers, and where the United States only recently lifted its ban on women in combat despite 20 percent of its ranks being female. “Being a woman, it was a really unique opportunity,” she said.
Not everyone understood. Sometimes soldiers would yell at her. But she felt, “If you don’t take those pictures, then how will anybody know what sacrifices were made?”
Sometimes Ms. Pearsall was capturing images of soldiers she barely knew. Other times it was of her closest friends. She recalled the death of Capt. Donnie R. Belser, killed by sniper fire mere hours after she had heard him singing “Happy Birthday” to his son.
And at times she set down her cameras to help her fellow soldiers in battle. While riding along with a unit caught in an ambush, she picked up an M240 machine gun and provided cover fire as others brought back wounded soldiers. Amid flying bullets, she hauled the wounded into the armored vehicle, including a soldier almost twice her size, placing her hand on his neck to stop the blood pumping out of his carotid artery.
Stacy L. Pearsall Members of the Iraqi Army shared lunch with a local family during a four-day operation in New Baquba. March 4, 2007.
But her two rotations in Iraq exacted an enormous physical toll. During her first tour, she suffered injuries from a roadside bomb that tore through her Humvee, and a similar I.E.D. blast occurred during her second tour. She suffered concussions, traumatic brain injuries, and a ruptured disc in her neck.
By February 2007, Ms. Pearsall began to feel tremors in her hands and it was difficult to hold her head up straight. One morning she could not get out bed. Her bunkmate, Kathryn Robinson, a videographer, got her to go to the doctor, where she learned the injuries were worse than she suspected. About three months later she was flown out of Iraq for medical care in Charleston, S.C.
Her job prospects dimmed. She was awarded a Bronze Star, but photojournalism was no longer an option in the military. She felt the Air Force did not take her injuries seriously, including her post-traumatic stress, and they questioned why she did not report her problems sooner. But she knew that if she had reported them, should would lose the job she loved so much. “The military had trained me this way — to suck it up,” she said.
Ms. Pearsall reluctantly took a medical discharge in one of the most difficult times in her life.
Even worse, she said, was the psychological toll. She was reluctant to say anything about PTSD, fearful that few of her colleagues would take her seriously.
“The one thing about PTSD is it’s the war that never ends” she said. “Suicide might seem like a viable option. It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Driving in South Carolina one day, she wondered whether she should just steer her car into an overpass. Nearly a thousand active duty military personnel have attempted suicide in 2011, the most recent year for which there are official statistics. While Ms. Pearsall did not, she is among an untold number who engage in what is termed suicidal ideation, contemplating how they might kill themselves.
Ms. Pearsall sought help from a local Department of Veterans Affairs clinic. Now she is active in a variety of efforts to help veterans, including photography workshops and her work as a spokeswoman for the Real Warriors Campaign. She’s spoken about her path on Oprah’s television show, and the role of women in combat.
But photography still remains her passion. She runs a photo studio in Charleston with her husband, who was also a military photographer, and highlights work by her students on her studio’s walls. Her military experience has led to commercial assignments for products like body armor.
Ms. Pearsall continues to ensure that the sacrifices made by veterans are not forgotten. She started the Veterans Portrait Project Foundation, capturing images of those who served in conflicts stretching back to World War II, which hang on the walls of the local Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. She is currently at work on several photo essays about the lives of veterans.
She worries about the plight of veterans and sees her work as a continuation of her job in the military. “That story isn’t over for them,” she said. “I just don’t want people to forget that.”