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We caught up with PhotoShelter member Stacy Pearsall last week at the 2010 D.C. Shoot Off. Stacy is a retired Air Force Staff Sergeant and two-time winner of the Military Photographer of the Year award. She did three tours of duty in Iraq. Originally, we were hoping to hear from Stacy what a combat photographer does after leaving the military. As Stacy transforms her photography career, she’s got more than a handful of interesting projects in play. Yet she’s also dealing with the lingering physical and mental effects of getting wounded twice by improvised explosive devices – the second one ended her military career. So, through our chat we actually learned a lot more from Stacy about the serious problems facing disabled veterans today. The details of Stacy’s story are hardly unique, and they will make you mad.
Stacy came home in 2007 and was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI). She suffered from partial hearing loss and neurological problems that would trigger severe arm and neck pain, and numbness across the upper right side of her body. While the military doctors initially wanted to do immediate surgery to repair her neck overseas, she instead flew home where her doctors determined she was not a candidate for surgery. For over a year, she received a new alternative and painful treatment called Prolotherapy. She was also placed on a series of neurological medications to help lessen the symptoms of her TBI. Since her injury in 2007, Stacy has underwent over 150 physical therapy appointments, 30 Prolotherapy procedures, six vertigo treatments, five right-ear evaluations, four cat scans, two MRI’s and countless other medical appointments.
When wounded veterans come home, one of the immediate questions they face is, “how am I going to make money now?” The military will generally provide a pension that varies based on time served. But if the vet is disabled – unable to find regular work due to the physical and mental injury of wounds sustained in combat – the Veterans Administration is supposed to step in to provide additional compensation. However, the vet must apply, get examined multiple times, and provide endless paperwork to validate the injury and ongoing disability. Thus begins a black hole of painful and frustrating bureaucracy that leaves a veteran in limbo, typically unpaid, awaiting a final ruling on disability status in order to collect compensation. For Stacy, this process has now lasted over 2 years.
Meanwhile, Stacy considers herself lucky compared to most disabled veterans. Her close friend was shot in Iraq in 2007, and endured a partial amputation before returning home. Due to the physical effects of the combat wound and lingering post traumatic stress disorder, Stacy’s friend found it difficult to maintain a steady job. Meanwhile, military doctors have not validated her PTSD and her Reserve unit has not officially determined her military and medical status – meaning she cannot collect medical retirement funds and she is limited to the treatments she can receive from the Veterans Administration. Stacy’s friend is now $50,000 in debt because she’s forced to cover the majority of her medical and living expenses. However she is finding it difficult to pay back the debt because her condition prevents her from keeping a steady job.
According to Stacy, this is happening to disabled veterans at an alarming scale. “Whether it’s the process moving too slowly with back and forth between the military or Veterans Administration, examinations, or the endless paperwork, one way or another you don’t get the help you need.”
So, Stacy has turned her attention to helping in several different ways, determined to raise awareness for disabled veterans’ issues. One way, of course, is with her photography. After spending a tremendous amount of time at the VA hospital, retirement home, and homeless shelter in her home of Charleston, Stacy started bringing along her camera and creating portraits of the veterans she encountered. She has amassed a collection of 350 portraits, which will go on display in May at the Charleston VA, as part of a fundraiser. She has also gotten involved with veterans’ advocacy efforts including the Wounded Warrior Project, by raising money and she’ll be competing in the Wounded Warrior Olympics this May.
VETERANS PORTRAIT PROJECT – Images by Stacy Pearsall
As for expanding her post-military photography career, Stacy looks at commercial assignment work as funding for her advocacy efforts. She recently shot an ad campaign for DSM Dyneema, a body armor manufacturer. She also recently joined together with a group of other former military photographers to establish Legion Photo, a specialty photo agency. Finally, she purchased the Charleston Center for Photography where she is the director and frequently brings photography industry leaders to Charleston for seminars and workshops. She regularly gives her time to help others learn photography fundamentals, with active involvement with ICP and the Eddie Adams workshop. This summer, you can catch Stacy at Skip’s Summer School, in Morocco with Photo Quest Adventures or even in Maui for the Maui Photo Festival.
Have a look at some exceptional images from various points in Stacy’s career.