Combat Photography, Wounded Warriors & The Long Wait for Help

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. 

PhotoShelter member Stacy Pearsall did 3 tours as a combat photographer in Iraq and was wounded twice.

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.   

Stacy Pearsall Images – PhotoShelter – Images by Stacy Pearsall

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This article was written by

PhotoShelter CEO. Follow on Twitter: @awfingerman and Instagram: @awfinger

There are 12 comments for this article
  1. Joe Labrosse at 7:06 am

    Stacy was attached to my Platoon for about a week just prior to her being sent home for her injuries. She displayed nothing but true professionalism in her work and her demeanor. Having several Combat Camera, Army PAO and civilian journalist tagging along with my Platoon during my second Iraq deployment her photos of my Platoon are by far the best and she and her partner were by far the easiest to work with. Thanks for continued work Stacy. Red 7

  2. joemcnallyphoto at 7:29 pm

    I have worked with Stacy for a number of years now, both as a colleague and an instructor, at Ft. Meade, Combat Camera, and CCforP. She is, quite simply, one of the finest, most enthusiastic, ardent practitioners of the art and craft of photojournalism I have encountered in my over 30 years in this business. Her photos of both military and civilian life are telling and true. Her resolve, honesty and compassion when she has a camera in her very capable hands are at the highest of standards. I am proud to call her a friend and colleague. My thanks to her for her work and her integrity. Joe McNally

  3. Ken at 9:15 pm

    Having read the comments by “veteran concerned” before they were removed, (thank you for removing that diatribe), I can only say this individual is uninformed and doesn’t know Stacy. I have had the privilege of knowing Stacy since she was a young kid in the military and in photography. Since that time I have been amazed and extremely proud of her growth as an individual and as a photographer. She has worked damn hard to arrive at her current status. She is a wonderful, caring person who has always gone our of the way to help other people, photographers or not. I am very happy to consider her my friend

  4. Eli Reed at 9:29 pm

    It is upsetting in so many ways that someone would have the nerve to attack such a person of the kind of quality that Stacy has carried with her in every way and every day off her life. She has conducted herself with courage and honor because it is not an option to do otherwise in her life. Stacy is an extraordinary photographer that happens to be a woman. I look at her work and I can feel the passion and the honesty that she brings through her images. She is a special person and I consider myself fortunate to have been around to watch her continued walk toward excellance inspire of idiots who are jealous of who she and their realistic understanding that they will never ever rise to her level of humanity and talented understanding of what it takes to be a human being. I have been involved with teaching at the US Department of Defense Photojournalism Workshop from it’s beginning which totals at least 18 years. I have often thought of Stacy Pearsall as one of the prime highlights

  5. Scott Bourne at 10:30 am

    I am proud to say that Stacy is a friend of mine. She and her husband Andy are both tremendous human beings and superb photographers. When I first saw Stacy’s work I found it to be moving in every way. She’s a brave, talented, noteworthy person and I am glad she got some press on this blog. She deserves it. Look at the people who support Stacy here. None other than Eli Reed and Joe McNally – two highly-respected individuals. You don’t get that kind of support unless you deserve it. If you want to get better at photography, spend an hour studying the emotion and empathy in Stacy’s work. Then try to find something in yourself that is as strong and dependable and truthful as Stacy’s core – and go make great images.

  6. bill frakes at 12:43 pm

    I consider Stacy among my best friends, and dearest colleagues. She is an amazing photographer–an incredibly talented storyteller. She lives in full public view, clearly identified with and taking credit for her visual voice. A voice that is powerful, clear and concise. Even better than her work–which is undeniably among the best currently being done–is her love and support of the community of photographers. She constantly exhibits grace under pressure personally and professionally. She always makes me smile. Bill Frakes

  7. bill frakes at 12:43 pm

    I consider Stacy among my best friends, and dearest colleagues. She is an amazing photographer–an incredibly talented storyteller. She lives in full public view, clearly identified with and taking credit for her visual voice. A voice that is powerful, clear and concise. Even better than her work–which is undeniably among the best currently being done–is her love and support of the community of photographers. She constantly exhibits grace under pressure personally and professionally. She always makes me smile. Bill Frakes

  8. Bill Putnam at 2:53 pm

    I met Stacy at EAW in 2006 shortly after coming home from a long stint in The Sandbox. She was as honest in her words as she is with her pictures. Whatever this guy was said was totally off base. The vitroal he spewed from brain to keyboard was complately off the mark. Stacy is one of the most supportive, creative and amazing people in her profession. Don’t let it get you down, Stac!

  9. Mary F. Calvert at 10:55 am

    Stacy Pearsall is one of my favorite people to walk this earth and I count her as a very dear friend. I have watched her grow over the years into one of the finest photojournalists out there working today. I have met few people with as much integrity and courage as she. Her depth of spirit and kindness and sense of humor add to all of these fine qualities to make her a person that I would trust with my life. Thank you Stacy for counting me as one of your near and dear. all the best, Mary F. Calvert

  10. Tina Schell at 4:49 pm

    I am NOT a friend of Stacy’s, and the diatribe was removed before I got here but I AM a huge fan of CCCP and Stacy’s support for the local photography community has been outstanding. Her work is excellent and I have never heard a single word of complaint about her in the Charleston area. She is widely respected and admired. I had no idea how extensively she had been injured and applaud her tenacity and resulting successes following such trauma.

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