10-Year Review by Stacy Pearsall

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10-YEAR REVIEW: This week marks the ten-year anniversary of my medical retirement from the United States Air Force and the start of the Veterans Portrait Project. Here’s what I’ve learned over the last decade… Though my body and spirit was broken, I learned to push through adversity and pain. I was told I’d never run again; I ran a marathon. I was told I’d never ride my horse, Sir Prize; I switched to wagon-driving instead. I was told I’d take medications the rest of my life; I now have America’s VetDogs Charlie who’s better than any manmade elixir. I was told my photography career was over; I’ve captured in-excess of 7,500 veterans’ portraits, taught photography classes worldwide and now I’m a Nikon Ambassador.

The secret to my success has been PURPOSE. There’s nothing more powerful than having a reason to live. I don’t mean simply “existing.” I’m talking about waking up with a smile, being motived, reaching bench marks, setting new goals and going to bed feeling fulfilled.

The path I’ve walked has often felt uncertain, overwhelming and scary. Even when I’ve felt alone and listless, there’ve been guiding hands leading me through uncharted territory. I’ve had the love and support of my husband, Andy; my step-kids, Hayley and Tyler; my parents, Susan and Steven; my siblings, Meggen, Tami, Chad and John; my friends Trish and Des’ola… and so many more family and friends too countless to mention in this post.

When I was handed my DD 214, I thought life was over – figuratively and literally. Turns out, it wasn’t the end of my story – simply, the ending of Chapter 1. My time and experience in the military provided the knowledge and insight I needed to begin Chapter 2; the beginning of the Veterans Portrait Project and a new mission in life. Early on, I grappled with self-worth issues. I was weighed down by all the negativity. I felt alone, isolated and pointless. With every veteran I talked to and photographed, I felt validated and vindicated. Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Witnessing their resilience and perserverance provided me the motivation I needed to put one foot in front of the other. Often, that’s all we really need to do – one step at a time.

I am human. Naturally I’ve made mistakes, met stumbling blocks, fallen flat on my face, even taken steps back. I’m not perfect. That’s life. These trials and tribulations have provided me perspective. They’ve proved that while I have come a long way, I’ve a long way to go. I am optimistic and hopeful for the future. My future.

Here’s what I know for certain. Never let anyone tell you what you cannot do. Rather, FOCUS on what you want to do and GIVE IT YOUR ALL. Your value and worth should be measured in the small successes you achieve in spite of the obstacles before you. For me, the Veterans Portrait Project isn’t just a give-back or photography project. It’s PURPOSE. ❤️ Stacy P.

Photographing Veterans after Capturing Combat

Photographing Veterans after Capturing Combat

by Victoria Hanson (SC Public Radio)

LISTEN HERE

Stacy Pearsall’s office is tucked away in an upstairs bedroom of her Charleston area home. Her service dog Charlie checks in occasionally, tail wagging, making sure she’s alright. Above her desk, hangs a collection of spoons; small, some silver, simple and ornate. Stacy says she handpicked them for a loved one during her overseas travels, someone who has since passed away. They reflect her love of service and a discerning eye. The 38 year-old is a photographer, a master of the moment and light.

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Stacy & Charlie… Soulmates

Special Dog Helps His Veteran Mom Get Her Life Back | When this veteran got back home after a traumatic brain injury, she wanted to hide her struggle from everyone — until she met her service dog, Charlie. Today on Soulmates, watch how Charlie helped his mom get back out into the world and start enjoying every minute.
You can keep up with Stacy and Charlie’s amazing relationship on Instagram, slpearsall: https://thedo.do/Stacy.
You can follow Veterans Portrait Project on Facebook: https://thedo.do/VeteranPortrait.
You can learn more about America’s VetDogs and their mission to help veterans on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AmericasVetD….
You can also help Stacy promote awareness of American veterans through the art of photography by donating to: https://thedo.do/VPP.
Special thanks to Andy Dunaway for allowing us to feature his incredible photography. You can check his work out here: https://thedo.do/Andy.

Stacy Pearsall: Jefferson Award Recipient

Stacy Pearsall Receives the Jefferson Award

by Dean Stephens

 

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.

Where We’ve Been

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States visited in GRAY // States yet to visit in ORANGE

Where We’ve Been

If you’d like to see where the Veterans Portrait Project has been, simply have a look below. Each gallery link will take you to a gallery that features portraits taken on that day, in that city, in that state. If you see the same city multiple times, it’s not a mistake. We just did back-to-back shoot days in that location. Each event is listed in order of date, so take your time and have fun learning more about our American heroes!

If you see your state in ORANGE, we still need to get there. You can help us get there! Learn how to host a VPP event HERE. If you can’t be a host, you can always contribute by making a DONATION.

If you see your state in GRAY, you can find the gallery(s) of images from your state below.

Featured Veteran: Mazin Mozan

During the Battle of Baqubah Reunion last month, Stacy Pearsall reunited with Mazin Mozan. Ten years ago, Mozan was an Iraqi civilian, and one of the many translators Pearsall worked with during her service. Mozan was gracious to share his story with us.

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When asked what his favorite memory was while he was in the service, Mozan had several. “The day I raised my right hand and recited the oath to enlist in the United States Army is a feeling I will never forget. Also my graduation day from basic training was another day where I felt happiness that I never felt before. The last one is the day I was naturalized to become a U.S. citizen.”

Mozan takes us back to his youth. He described his family as hard working and encouraging, despite hard times. He explains, “I was born on 31 July 1982 in an average Iraqi family that believed in education and professional careers more than anything else. My parents are teachers who always kept us focused on our education and our goals to become successful citizens in the future. My father struggled to provide for us despite being a teacher, because he was known for disagreeing with Saddam Hussein’s ideology and the way his regime controlled the nation. Therefor they never let my father hold a decent job.”

During Mozan’s teen years, he worked many grueling, hard labor jobs such as assembly line and construction work to help his family. This wasn’t the only thing he was doing while providing extra money.

“I worked during my five years of Veterinary school and paid for my college as well as my sister’s school,” Mozan said. “She studied Biology.”

He was already fluent in English and Arabic by this time. And the days leading to the 2003 Iraq War, the Iraqis were nervous. “[We] didn’t know what will be our next chapter, couldn’t anticipate what a dictator like Saddam could do, neither could we trust the American promise,” Mozan said. “Iraqis hesitated to trust the Americans because of what happened during Desert Storm in the 1990’s. At that time, the U.S. military marched into Iraq to defend Kuwait – only coming half way to Baghdad when the campaign was halted. The Iraqis who’d stood against Saddam were abandoned and promptly executed by Saddam.”

Mozan continues, “After the dust settled and the dream came somewhat true watching Saddam’s regime fall apart it was an overwhelming mix of happiness, nervousness and anxiety amid the chaos. Late 2004, I watched how the very troops who came to change our lives for better were being attacked by foreigners coming across the border to defend radical ideology.”

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Mozan translates for Army Colonel Jim Bowie (left of Mozan in center) with Iraqi soldiers and civilians accompanying them.

Mozan could not remain a bystander, thus allowing others to decide his peoples’ future. With his grade school knowledge of the English language, plus five years of English in college, he decided to help the American troops. “I worked as a part time interpreter while completing my senior year in college. Upon graduating, I focused completely on being a linguist,” Mozan recalls, “Financially the job offered little money compared to the risk I was putting myself and family in, however it gave me satisfaction that I was making difference. I was standing up to people doing harm to innocent citizens on both sides, Iraqis and Americans.”

The trials Mozan faced in combat from 2006 to 2007 were the most difficult. He worked with an elite unit in Baqubah, and they were involved in nearly-daily firefights with enemy forces. “Unfortunately [we] lost many brothers in arms. During those years between when I started in 2004 to 2007, my family was under constant threat and extreme risk by insurgents. The enemy knew the value of the interpreters to the Coalition Force’s mission. Without linguists the troops’ mission was significantly impacted. I was not only dealing with the risk I was facing every day, but most importantly my family, who had no protection. They faced radicals who would threaten them with harm in hopes of persuading me to quit the job. It became impossible for me to go home a visit my family. I was forced to stay on base with the troops because, every time I traveled on my own, the insurgents attempted to kill me.”

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Pictured here is Mozan with then SSG Ochoa. The day this photograph was made was one that changed his life forever. “We were in a very bad situation where we came too close to being possibly killed or captured by the enemy after being trapped and surrounded by enemy from all four sides. We only had 4 of us on top of one of the houses. You can see the shots on the front windshield of the vehicle.”

There were many horrors going on in Mozan’s life. His U.S. teammates convinced him to apply for a special immigrant Visa program. Established by President Bush, the special program allowed Iraqi linguists who supported troops during the war move to America. This was perfect for Mozan, but it involved fleeing the country. “I had no hope the Visa approval would ever happen,” he said.

It took five long months waiting in Egypt to get the news from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that he was approved for travel. “After spending everything I had while awaiting the Visa, I had little to no money. I called the only people I could rely on – my brothers that I went through combat with. I called Lieutenant Colonel Damon Holditch, who didn’t hesitate to send me money to help purchase my airfare to the United States.”

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Mozan shared a photograph of him in front of the Statute of Liberty in New York with these words, “Just a few months before that picture I was trapped and considered traitor in my own country, so to be by the Statue of Liberty and live the freedom here in the United States meant a lot to me.”

On September 17th, 2007, he arrived in Huntsville, Alabama, where Colonel Jim Bowie, Mozan’s former commander in Iraq, and Colonel Dustin Awtrey, Bowie’s deputy in Iraq, welcomed him with open arms. “They took me in into their homes and treated me like their own son,” he says. He started from square one with nothing in his pockets, and he waited anxiously to receive his green card and social security card so he could begin working. Being in America was an immense culture shock, and he had to adjust to his chosen new society. He eventually was offered a job as an Arabic linguist and deployed to Iraq once again. There was one difference though, “My salary was nowhere near the $600 a month I received when I was a local national linguist.”

Afterwards he went to Camp Pendelton, California, where he completed three months of processing and another three months of training. From there, he deployed to Iraq. After a year-and-a-half, he resigned his position and returned to the United States.

I had excellent income, reflects Mozan. An in many a friend’s eye, I’d earned the title “soldier” in all but name. However, I felt compelled to become a soldier in reality.

Mozan enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after returning from Iraq in 2009. During this time, he met the woman that he knew would be his biggest support in his journey. Mozan explains, “Sarah, who is the mother of my two beautiful children, and I met through mutual friends at Redstone Arsenal Army Base where she worked at the PX. We got Married 2 months before I departed for basic training. My first duty station was Hawaii where I served as a logistician and worked my way up the promotion ladder to attain the rank of Sergeant. Both my children were born there, my daughter, Mariam, was born on 09/19/2011, and my son, Youssif, was born on 10/02/2013.”

After serving 4 years of active duty, Mozan transitioned into the U.S. Army Reserves, where he trained to become a cardiovascular technologist. He currently works at the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, as a contractor. Mozan is considering applying to the U.S. Army Physician Assistant Program next year and becoming a commissioned officer.

“I try to speak about my story,” explains Mozan. “I want to share how the war in Iraq presented very opportunity I got. I believe it’s my duty as a soldier to educate people and tell the truth. The friends I made from 2005-2007, where I saw most of the combat, are my family. We stay in touch. The hardships we survived made us stronger than blood brothers. Many people ask me how I faced all the stress and overcame the risk. My answer is, ‘I believed in the job I was doing and I trusted my fellow soldiers would keep me alive.'”

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Mozan with his team, “Alamo”, from his 2006-2007 deployment. These men are the ones who helped him directly to move to the U.S., and they continue to be his mentors and consider him their own family.

© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi

 

Kontum Diary

Meet Paul Reed, who’s a veteran of the Vietnam War. For years, he lived with the guilt of taking life. The feelings became too much, and he receded from society, he lost everything and eventually he became homeless.

After some time, he moved home with his mother. She’d kept his war mementos he’d sent home all those years ago. One of those items was a diary he’d taken from a Vietnamese soldier he’d engaged, and presumably killed, on the battlefield.

His mother encouraged him to get it translated. That he did, and the Vietnamese soldier’s writings changed Reed’s heart and soul.

Reed set on a journey to return the soldier’s items to his widow. Upon arriving in Vietnam, Reed discovered the soldier wasn’t dead! Together, they visited the battlefield where they’d last met and began healing together.

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Once enemies, they’re true friends today. You can learn more about Reed’s story in the book Kontum Diary, or check out the documentary by PBS.
Kontum Diary: Captured Writings Bring Peace to a Vietnam Veteran

Featured Veteran: Ron Pearsall

Ron Pearsall is the Veterans Portrait Project founder’s uncle. Pearsall is a Marine Corps veteran who was a mortarman and draftsman during the Vietnam War era.

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Ron Pearsall suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. He is partially disabled, and is currently unemployed.  Part of his PTSD therapy is renovating an older model of a sixteen foot travel trailer. We are asking for help to support a fellow veteran, ultimately giving him a place of his own to call home.

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To support Ron Pearsall, click here to view his GoFundMe page and donate. We at the Veterans Portrait Project appreciate any support you can provide, even if it is as simple as sharing his GoFundMe page.

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© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi

In Memory of Megan Halagan

In 2014, we met Megan Halagan in Killeen, Texas. She was a U.S. Army veteran who served as a specialist from November of 2009 to May of 2014.

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Earlier this month, we were informed she had passed away. She had been battling cancer for four years. Halagan is survived by her husband, Harry, and is the mother of three children (ages three years old to thirteen years old): Sage, Jeremiah, and Aliyah.

Halagan was laid to rest at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery with military honors.

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We at the Veterans Portrait Project are grateful we got to meet and photograph Halagan. We send our dearest condolences to her family during this time.

© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi