Stacy Pearsall found inspiration in, of all places, the waiting rooms of Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.
As a young, female veteran, Pearsall, who is combat disabled and medically retired from military service, said she felt like a minority sitting in those rooms. Her perception was that male veterans were always staring at her, and that they assumed she worked for the VA or that she was the daughter of a veteran, not that she served herself.
On one particularly frustrating visit to the VA, an elderly gentleman sat down next to her. She could see out of the corner of her eye that he was staring at her. Pearsall, a former Air Force staff sergeant, turned and asked him if she could help him with something. His eyes lit up, and he began telling her all about his experience serving in World War II, including liberating a concentration camp.
“I thought he thought something else of me, when it was me who was thinking ill of him,” Pearsall said. “I wanted to change my own perspective and wanted everyone to know just how much of a treasure he was, and all the other veterans in the VA who I was sitting alongside.”
Eleven years later, Pearsall has photographed about 7,500 military personnel from across the country — mainly veterans but also those serving on active duty. Her subjects have varied widely from an 18-year-old who’d been in the Marines just two weeks to a 102-year-old World War II vet. The photographs have appeared in VA facilities and on its website.
On Monday, she made a stop at the Submarine Force Library & Museum in Groton as part of the effort, known as the Veterans Portrait Project.
“As a society, we tend to concentrate on these stories of heroism, which is just and right, but there are small stories that make up the successes we’ve had as a country and those small stories, as a whole, are why our military is so great,” she said.
Some chose to be photographed in uniform while others have brought along their service animals. One vet brought the helmet he was wearing when he got shot, and filled it with empty pill bottles — prescriptions from the VA.
“Every veteran has a voice and a story that goes along with it. It’s my job to listen to what that story is and the message that they’re trying to convey and to be able to capture that thoughtfully,” she said.
As 97-year-old World War II vet Ben Cooper, of West Hartford, dressed in a wool green jacket that became standard issue for U.S. troops beginning in November 1944 at the request of General Dwight Eisenhower, stepped toward the white backdrop to have his portrait taken, Pearsall greeted him with a “Hi handsome, how are you?”
She later asked him about the first meal he ate when he got home, and what life as a civilian was like after the military.
Despite their nearly sixty years in age difference, Pearsall said she’s able to connect with Cooper and her other subjects, and get them to open up about their military service, because she’s a veteran too.
Pearsall joined the Air Force at 17 and worked for four years in intelligence, developing film captured by U-2 spy planes, before a coveted combat photographer job opened up. She traveled to more than 40 countries, including two ground combat tours in Iraq.
Her photos, which were widely disseminated, documented everything from the opening of a school to a raid in search of the most wanted officials of Saddam Hussein’s government.
As a young woman she said she had a different perspective than most of her counterparts who were men, and while some may think that would be a hindrance, especially in combat, she said it culturally provided her more access such as being able to interact with Iraqi women.
Her job did not make her immune to injury. During both tours to Iraq, she suffered injuries from I.E.D. blasts. Her injuries, including multiple concussions and traumatic brain injuries, forced her to medically retire from the military. She said she views her photography work now as a continuation of her military service.
“Now I know I can serve my country in a different way,” she said.
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