By Shelley Hill Young
Stacy Pearsall hadn’t yet turned 30 when she found herself undergoing rehabilitation at Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston. The Air Force sergeant had been ambushed while working as a combat photojournalist in Iraq and fell and hit her head. It was the third injury to her neck during her third combat tour. She had been hit by roadside bombs twice before and suffered brain trauma, though doctors didn’t yet know how to identify it. Still, all Stacy wanted to do was get back behind the camera. But this time, doctors told her if she took one more hit or fell one more time, she could sever her spinal cord. Stacy recalls being in a dark place, thinking she had no particular future. While waiting to see a neurologist, she felt an older veteran staring at her. His stare made her uncomfortable, and she finally turned to him and said, “Is there something I can help you with?” The man’s face lit up, and he told her all about his service as part of a reconnaissance detail in France and Austria in World War II. That’s when Stacy realized she was surrounded by members of “The Greatest Generation,” veterans who all had extraordinary stories to tell.
It was her moment of inspiration. She picked up her camera and shot a portrait of the veteran, whose name was Mickey Dorsey. She hasn’t put down her camera since, taking strikingly personal photos of veterans from across the country as part of the Veterans Portrait Project, which she founded. Her work is featured in a joint exhibition, “The Face of Battle, Americans at War 9/11 to Now” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. She earned the Bronze Star Medal and Air Force Commendation with Valor for her combat action in Iraq. She is one of two women to win the National Press Photographers Association Military Photographer of the Year Competition and the only woman to have earned it twice. Stacy has created por traits of 6,000 veterans in 27 states, and her goal is to document veterans in every state and province from which the Depar tment of Defense recruits.
But, Stacy says, the most important photographs she has ever taken are the ones that the public will never see: She has taken the last living images of many soldiers. “Those are the most important works that I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “The memories live on in the hearts of their families.”
See Stacy’s portraits at veteransportraitproject.com.
May is National Military Appreciation Month. skirt! supports all the men and women who serve in our armed forces.