Shifting her focus Ex-combat photographer finds new calling in veteran portraits

Stacy Pearsall prepared to focus her camera on veteran David Ball as she softly sang "Let It Go" over and again, a tune from the Disney movie "Frozen."

She recently completed a year of coast-to-coast travel for her Veterans Portrait Project. In 33 cities, she photographed men and women who served their country including a 99-year-old Bataan Death March survivor.

In West Ashley, she added another veteran to the list of more than 3,000 for whom she has done portraits. She and assistant Cali Barini set up lights and other equipment in Ball's garage where he was photographed.

It was a good day for Pearsall. The post-traumatic stress disorder that can keep her at home in Goose Creek was at bay. Pearsall said that she is getting better emotionally. The portrait project has been a saving grace for her.

"Four or five years ago I wouldn't be able to sit in this room where we are sitting. I would be buried in the corner over there. I've been pushing my comfort zone to get myself out of this repetitious funk because that's what PTSD does to you," she said.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Pearsall was wounded in 2004 and 2007 during tours of duty in Iraq when improvised explosive device blasts hit armored vehicles in which she was traveling. She received the Bronze Star for her actions helping rescue wounded soldiers.

She feels blessed despite the head and neck injuries.

"I walked away from them. I wasn't wheeled away or carried off. I was hurt but I wasn't incapacitated," she said.

But the transition to civilian life wasn't easy. After a medical discharge, she felt lost. Her career as a combat photographer was over, and she was wrestling with the effects of her service-related injuries.

"The physical pain was one thing. I was trained well enough to just kind of suck it up and keep going. I just wasn't prepared for the emotional anguish I was going to feel," she said.

Conversations with veterans in waiting rooms at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center led to a new career path. A World War II vet asked if she had brought her grandfather to see the doctor. No, she told him, she in fact was a vet who was there for medical care. The man told her about his experiences liberating a concentration camp.

Because of such moments, Pearsall felt inspired to pursue portrait photography of veterans. She received permission from the VA Medical Center to set up a small studio in a hospital foyer. Dozens of her portraits are displayed at the hospital and at the Veterans Portrait Project website, www.veteransportraitproject.com. Her portraits also hang in other VA hospitals around the country.

Word of her talent spread among veterans such as Air Force Reservist Ball, who three months ago asked if she would photograph him at his house.

"Her work is just remarkable," he said.

As a token of his appreciation, Ball presented an Afghan scarf to Pearsall. She wrapped it around her head in a moment of light humor that defined the photo shoot.

"I don't let them overthink it. Nor do I overthink it," she said.

But she is meticulous in her preparation. She and Barini carry big bags of equipment that contain the latest digital technology for portraiture. The two women traveled together on the road for the Veterans Portrait Project sponsored by USAA insurance.

"It was incredible. I never imagined that the project would go past here," she said.

Her photography career has taken her to other heights she never envisioned. She was twice named Military Combat Photographer of the Year. Her work has appeared in Time magazine, The New York Times, Popular Photography, Newsweek and on PBS and CNN. She has published a book, "Shooter," a visual portrait of war. She received an honorary doctorate from The Citadel.

Despite the accolades, she maintains a self-deprecating sense of humor. "I'm a functionally crazy person. I have pretty serious PTSD," she said.

When Pearsall joined the Air Force at age 17, she aimed for something that combined service to her country and the arts. Her enlistment followed a family tradition of military service reflected in her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her father was in the Navy. Her grandfather was a Pearl Harbor survivor.

After four years of intelligence work processing U-2 spy plane film, she was accepted to the elite 1st Combat Camera Squadron at Joint Base Charleston. She learned about photography but at the same time was being schooled in close-quarters combat, tactical driving of an armored vehicle and use of specialty weapons.

Pearsall, 34, a South Dakota native, plans a move to the Dorchester County countryside. She and her husband, Ret. Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway, 46, also a former Air Force combat photographer, recently purchased 12 acres outside Harleyville. She envisions having a studio and a retreat for veterans in transition.

She looks back with new perspective at the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the tight bonds knitted in battle.

"It's a friendship that is born of war and that's not the kind that you can get here very readily," she said.

These days, she is forging new bonds with veterans. Photographing portraits of them never gets old.

"Even today, it's still exciting getting to know somebody new and their story. It's a never-ending project, I think," she said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.