Real Warrior’ Finds Path to Physical, Emotional Healing

WASHINGTON, May 4, 2011 — Black-and-white pho­tos of Viet­nam-era vet­er­ans line the wall at a Vet­er­ans Affairs cen­ter. Some are smil­ing and oth­ers are gaz­ing at a dis­tant point, but in all, an unseen light catch­es the emo­tion in their eyes.
The pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Sta­cy Pearsall, a vet­er­an of the more recent wars, strove to cap­ture the char­ac­ter and the expe­ri­ence etched in their faces while lis­ten­ing to their rec­ol­lec­tions of war.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall
Then-Air Force Staff Sgt. Sta­cy Pearsall, a com­bat pho­tog­ra­ph­er, serves a tour of duty in Iraq.
Cour­tesy pho­to
Click to enlarge

“Their sto­ries are amaz­ing,” she said. This line of pho­tos on a wall in a VA cen­ter in Charleston, S.C., serves not only as Pearsall’s vet­er­an trib­ute, but also a mile­stone in her recov­ery from phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al wounds of war.

Just a few months ear­li­er, Pearsall had near­ly giv­en up hope of work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er again or of tak­ing pho­tos that didn’t serve as a haunt­ing reminder of a painful past. Pearsall’s pho­tog­ra­phy career took off while she was in the Air Force. As a com­bat pho­tog­ra­ph­er, she took thou­sands of pic­tures over the course of her Air Force career, earn­ing her acco­lades and awards from lead­ers at all lev­els of her chain of com­mand.

She trav­eled exten­sive­ly for her job, so she felt pre­pared when she was tasked to deploy to Bagh­dad in Sep­tem­ber 2003. As part of her duties, Pearsall doc­u­ment­ed a school rebuild­ing process, and when the school marked its open­ing with a cer­e­mo­ny in Feb­ru­ary 2004, she attend­ed. After the cer­e­mo­ny, as the unit pre­pared to head out, the Humvee she was rid­ing in was mak­ing a tight turn on a dead-end street when a road­side bomb det­o­nat­ed.

Pearsall was sit­ting behind the driver’s seat. The impact threw her for­ward, and her head hit the back of the seat. But more con­cerned about her ears, which were bleed­ing from the con­cus­sive sound, she didn’t feel the neck pain until hours lat­er. She was seen by a doc­tor who chalked it up to whiplash, and she was back out on a mis­sion the next day. Months lat­er, the headaches and ver­ti­go lin­gered, as did the severe neck pain. But con­cerned about her Air Force career, Pearsall didn’t seek treat­ment. Her deploy­ment end­ed in March, and she became a stu­dent at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty for a year to hone her pho­tog­ra­phy skills.

She had become accus­tomed to hid­ing her pain and the emo­tion­al after-effects of com­bat from oth­ers, but was unable to keep them from a friend — a fel­low pho­tog­ra­ph­er and Viet­nam vet­er­an — who rec­og­nized the signs of post-trau­mat­ic stress. He con­nect­ed her with a Vet Cen­ter, where she began coun­sel­ing. “It def­i­nite­ly helped me work through a lot of emo­tions and stress,” she said. “I knew what­ev­er I said to [my ther­a­pist] wouldn’t go back to my active-duty com­mand. There was no threat of los­ing my career.”

After school, Pearsall went on back-to-back deploy­ments, first to Africa, then to Lebanon and final­ly, back to Iraq. The dif­fer­ence between her first and sec­ond Iraq deploy­ments was like night and day, she said. In 2003, she nev­er fired her weapon, but in 2007, she fired it con­stant­ly.

Her unit expe­ri­enced heavy casu­al­ties in Diyala province. Pearsall saw bod­ies of Iraqis who had been exe­cut­ed and muti­lat­ed, and com­rades shot just a few feet away, which she lat­er had to pho­to­graph. Peo­ple get­ting wound­ed or killed was a dai­ly occur­rence, she said.

A series of back-to-back events took their toll. Pearsall lost three team­mates, and a day lat­er, her video part­ner was wound­ed and evac­u­at­ed. Anoth­er friend had been shot in the head right in front of her. “Noth­ing pre­pares you for the death of your friends,” she said. Her pho­tos from that time are haunt­ing.

In one pho­to, three sol­diers are gath­ered in a dim­ly lit room, faces down­ward as if in reflec­tion, a sin­gle light shin­ing through a win­dow. Two days before, their team­mate had been shot in the head just 10 feet away from where they were stand­ing. In anoth­er pho­to, two sol­diers are com­fort­ing each oth­er, one close to tears, after the loss of a friend the day before.

“I’m eter­nal­ly tied to the pho­tographs that I made and those sol­diers who were in those pho­tographs,” she said. The pho­tog­ra­ph­er said she had to keep her emo­tions in check, for her team­mates and for the troops who served under her. “I think I han­dled things pret­ty well by just not address­ing the emo­tions at the time,” she said.

Pearsall was injured again — fur­ther dam­ag­ing her neck — when a road­side bomb det­o­nat­ed dur­ing a mis­sion. A few months lat­er, her unit was ambushed. She was run­ning out to help a wound­ed sol­dier in the street when a cord attached to her hel­met snapped her back. Her head slammed on a Stryk­er vehi­cle, again injur­ing her neck. The next morn­ing, she felt neck pain unlike any­thing she had felt before, and she knew it was time to get help. The doc­tors did an X-ray and she was on a heli­copter that day. Her neck injury had grown so severe, the doc­tors told her, that if she had jolt­ed her head one more time, it would have sev­ered her spinal cord. Pearsall’s great­est fear — los­ing her career — was now at hand, she said. And her hus­band, a strong source of sup­port, was deployed at the time. “It was a real­ly ugly time in my life,” she said.

The years of wear­ing 85 pounds of gear had wreaked hav­oc on her neck. The doc­tors told her she wouldn’t be able to work as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er or pur­sue anoth­er pas­sion, rid­ing hors­es, again.

But Dr. Patrick Love­grove, an Air Force flight sur­geon at the time, offered her hope through pro­lother­a­py treat­ment — which involves inser­tion of a 4-inch nee­dle down to the bone — that last­ed for more than two years. Pearsall was able to get off of the pain killers and final­ly on the road to phys­i­cal recov­ery. Invest­ed in her recov­ery, her doc­tor sep­a­rat­ed from the Air Force, but con­tin­ued to donate his ser­vices to her until the ther­a­py end­ed in 2009 and she switched over to the VA sys­tem.

“I’ll always owe him a debt of grat­i­tude,” she said. The ther­a­py enabled her to ride hors­es and take pho­tos again, but she knew she’d always have some degree of pain from her degen­er­a­tive con­di­tion.

“It was either adapt to life or shriv­el up and die,” she said. Pearsall chose to adapt. But the loss of her Air Force career affect­ed her, as did the emo­tion­al wounds of war that she had pushed aside to focus on her phys­i­cal recov­ery. She start­ed see­ing a men­tal health ther­a­pist about a year after her deploy­ment.

“The mil­i­tary told me I couldn’t be a pho­tog­ra­ph­er for them any­more,” she said. “Men­tal­ly, that put me on a roller coast­er. What am I good for?” Pearsall found an answer at the VA med­ical cen­ter in Charleston. While she sat for hours in wait­ing rooms, she began to notice the men and women around her. Most of the vet­er­ans there were from the Viet­nam era, and she reached out to hear their sto­ries. She felt inspired to bring her cam­era and take their por­traits, lead­ing to the project that now fills a wall there.

“Just because I was dis­abled, didn’t make me unable,” she said. “Once I wrapped my own mind around that, I could do more.” Pearsall plans to keep up her vet­er­an por­trait work at VA hos­pi­tals in Geor­gia and North Car­oli­na, then here, and to Mary­land and Vir­ginia as well. In anoth­er effort aimed at help­ing vet­er­ans, Pearsall pro­vides horse ther­a­py to vet­er­ans through a non­prof­it group.

Most recent­ly, Pearsall offered to have her sto­ry doc­u­ment­ed for the Defense Department’s “Real War­riors” cam­paign in hopes of encour­ag­ing oth­er vet­er­ans and ser­vice­mem­bers to seek help. The cam­paign in spon­sored by the Defense Cen­ters of Excel­lence for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Health and Trau­mat­ic Brain Injury, and it fea­tures sto­ries of ser­vice mem­bers who sought psy­cho­log­i­cal treat­ment and con­tin­ued suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary or civil­ian careers. Her pro­file is now post­ed on the Real War­riors web­site, “My hope is that if they watch my sto­ry, they’ll find a way to offload their bur­den,” she said. “Every­one wears a dif­fer­ent amount, but it’s not nec­es­sary to car­ry it around with you all the time.”

Pearsall said the stig­ma that kept her from get­ting help has been great­ly reduced through projects such as the Real War­rior cam­paign and through efforts by the Defense and Vet­er­ans Affairs depart­ments.

For ser­vice­mem­bers still leery about get­ting care, Pearsall rec­om­mend­ed online sup­port net­works, blogs and forums where peo­ple can go and shed their bur­dens. “You’ll see you’re not alone,” she said. “The loss of sleep, night­mares, anx­i­ety, road rage — they’re prod­ucts of war.” Pearsall also hopes lead­ers will gain a greater under­stand­ing of men­tal health issues and, above all, avoid judg­ment. “Be pos­i­tive and sup­port­ive,” she said. “You’re the first in line for that ser­vice mem­ber.”

While it’s been dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss, Pearsall said, she believes it’s impor­tant to share her sto­ry. “If I get one per­son to get help if they’re hav­ing issues, then I feel like I’ve been suc­cess­ful,” she said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter