by Dean Stephens
Charleston, S.C. (WCIV) — She has traveled the world capturing life and death.
She served three combat tours. She did it for our country. She did it for her fellow service members.
Service before self; it’s not a motto, but a way of life for this month’s Jefferson Award winner, retired Staff Sargant Stacy Pearsall.
“I was a combat photographer, at the top of my game. I was the military photographer of the year twice and was doing everything right, “said Pearsall.
Her pictures from three combat tours are simply stunning.
Anguish, pain, loss, active military operations all caught by Pearsall’s eye.
“I joined the service when I was 17. I grew up there, it was my identity. I took a bad knock in Iraq and it ended my career,” said Pearsall.
“I found myself in a dark place suffering from PTSD and physical pain from rehabilitation,” said Pearsall.
How could Stacy Pearsall ever know that the end would actually be the beginning?
“When I went to the VA, there were not a lot of women. Going around the hallways, I stuck out like a sore thumb,” she said. “I would hear cat calls, silly things. People asking me if I was bringing my grandpa to his doctor appointment. People didn’t look at me like a veteran. Everything I had given was gone in an instance,” said Pearsall.
How could Stacy Pearsall ever know in that same VA her life would be redirected by the first-hand account of an aging veteran?
“Mickey Dorsey was a World War II veteran. He survived D-Day and liberated a concentration camp. He was a POW and an amazing American hero and for whatever reason our paths crossed that day. It was meant to be in that moment,” said Pearsall.
A moment in time framed by a single subject.
That’s when Stacy Pearsall finally knew.
“They said I couldn’t do photographs anymore, so I took Mickey’s portrait and I’ve been doing Veterans Portrait Project for 10 years. He was one of my first and my inspiration,” said Pearsall.
The faces of men and women who have bravely served make up Stacy’s Veteran Portrait Project, each with a story to share.
“One veteran shared how his job was to identify body parts and match body parts with individuals. A gruesome job and I can imagine why he is so emotional about it. We were in our own world, nothing else going on around us when I heard someone sobbing. His wife was behind us crying. She would tell me later that it was the first time he shared what he did in Vietnam,” Pearsall said. “I felt honored to be the person he actually shared with and he felt safe enough and had confidence in me to share that. I’m proud I can share his military history with others so they know what he did. He carried it with him for 50 years,”
Her new focus is to take veteran portrait photos in every state. She’s up to 28.
Stacy’s latest veteran is her husband, Andy Dunaway, also a fellow combat photographer.
“The life I had planned for myself wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as the life that is panning out now and I’m thankful for that,” said Pearsall.
That life now includes her service dog, Charlie.
“Because PTSD rears its ugly head at inconvenient times, he talks me off the ledge a lot quicker than I could by myself. He has been a wonderful battle buddy,” said Pearsall.
Her project has brought some of her friends on the front line back into her life.
“This was my battle buddy Katy. That’s her right there. To her right is Alan, he was killed the day before Katy was shot. Leroy was killed the same day as Alan,” said Pearsall as she points to one of her combat pictures.
Three combat tours, hundreds of thousands of pictures taken has led Stacy to a life with a single purpose.
“I think it was incredibly shortsighted to believe that I had to wear a uniform to serve others. I definitely still serve today, said Pearsall.
“I knew I had to go through a lot to get to where I am, and without suffering the things I had experienced, I wouldn’t have a better understanding or relatability to the veterans I meet so that it was necessary and I have no regrets about that either. Some things aren’t meant to make sense nor will they ever make sense. I could ask that question every day or I could live to honor their memory and be the best person I could be because I was spared and live in their memory and that’s what I try to do,” said Pearsall.
That’s exactly what she is doing. Her Veterans Portrait Project now preserves the memory for more than 7,000 veterans.