This Women's History Month we’re sharing stories of our wonderful women graduates, volunteers, and staff. The story below originally appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of The VetDogs Sentinel, Vol. 8 No. 3, our newsletter. To sign up for The VetDogs Sentinel , please click here.
Stacy Pearsall, featured in the story below, got her start as an Air Force photographer at the age of 17. During her time in service, she traveled to over 41 countries, and attended the Military Photojournalism Program at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University from which she is a 50 Forward distinguished graduate. During three combat tours, she earned the Bronze Star Medal and Air Force Commendation with Valor for combat actions in Iraq. Though combat disabled and retired from military service, Pearsall has not let her disabilities hold her back. With her service animal, America’s Vet Dogs Charlie, by her side, she continues to work worldwide as an independent photographer and is an author, educator, military consultant, BRAVO748 public speaker and founder of the Veterans Portrait Project.
Pearsall is also the executive producer and host of "After Action," a public broadcast series made possible by South Carolina ETV and the ETV Endowment. "After Action" reveals the experiences of 21 diverse veterans from across the country through candid conversations about what life is like before, during and after action. Pearsall’s own struggles to reconnect with society challenges her fellow veterans to probe deeper into their stories, helping to provide a better appreciation for those who’ve served. Learn more and stream "After Action" at https://www.pbs.org/show/after-action/ and read on for more about Stacy’s incredible story, inspirational life’s work, and her earliest days with her service dog, Charlie.
Stacy Pearsall grew up with a love of photography – and with a background of family members who had served in the military. She enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 17, with a specific goal in mind: She wanted to be a combat photographer.
Originally assigned to process infrared U2 spy-plane footage, “I found out about this wonderful job [Combat Camera],” she says, “so during my down time, I would take pictures and try and build a portfolio just to apply.”
Pearsall was accepted into the 1st Combat Camera Squadron in 2001 and reported for duty in Charleston, South Carolina, where she would learn to be a war photographer. For the rest of her 10-year career in the Air Force, she meticulously documented the lives and operations of the men and women serving in the nation’s armed forces, traveling to more than 41 countries in pursuit of these stories.
Pearsall was deployed to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom; the Horn of Africa as part of Operation Enduring Freedom; and then back to Iraq again. “My job varied from day to day,” she recalls. “On the one hand, I could be going out with the infantry going door to door looking for ‘bad guys,’ and then next, I could be on a joint operation with the Iraqi Army.” During her first tour of duty in Iraq in 2003-2004, Pearsall documented the rebuilding
of a school outside Baghdad International Airport. After the dedication ceremony, the unit was returning to base when a roadside bomb detonated near the Humvee in which she was traveling. Pearsall hit her head on the back of the driver’s seat and discovered she was bleeding from her ears. Hours later, she felt neck pain, which was diagnosed as whiplash.
“Because I had a pulse and all my limbs and my eyesight, I was on an operation the very next day,” she says. “But traumatic brain injury takes a while to rear its ugly head.”
Pearsall rotated stateside to attend school to enhance her photography skills, but the headaches and neck pain she had been experiencing grew steadily worse, and she began experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. However, she refrained from saying anything for fear it would affect her military career.
She was deployed to Africa, then to Lebanon in support of the evacuation of Americans during the fighting in 2006. Eventually, she was deployed again to Iraq.
On this tour of duty, her unit saw heavy fighting, with casualties of her friends and comrades occurring almost daily. During the rigors of battle, she aggravated existing injuries and sustained new ones. Each new trauma worsened the damage to her neck, and each new loss compounded her post-traumatic stress.
This time, she couldn’t ignore her physical pain. She went to the forward operating base doctor where, after tests, she was evacuated the same day to begin her journey home. Her neck injuries had become so severe she could no longer wear body armor or her helmet, or carry a combat load. She was told one more hit could result in irrevocable spinal cord damage.
Back home, after months of physical rehabilitation, Pearsall received the news that she could no longer be a combat photographer. For her, this meant a medical retirement and the end of her service in the Air Force. In the course of her career, Pearsall had twice won the National Press Photographers Military Photographer of the Year – the only woman to have been so honored – and been awarded a Bronze Star and the Air Force Commendation with Valor.
A new calling
Determined not to give up on the vocation that had defined her life for so long, Pearsall had a revelation while waiting for an appointment at her local VA. She got to talking with a World War II veteran and realized here was a way she could continue her photography career. She began the Veterans Portrait Project, in which she travels across the country taking veterans’ portraits and sharing their stories.
It was during one of her trips in 2015 that she me VetDogs graduates Joseph Worley and Kent Phyfe, who were representing VetDogs at the American Legion Convention in Baltimore, Maryland.
“I had been thinking about getting a service dog,” she says. “But to look at me is to see someone who looks high functioning. I don’t necessarily wear my injuries on the outside and that’s part of the problem – I don’t volunteer that [info] easily.”
Worley explained the benefits of a service dog, and Pearsall left with a new understanding of their role. A few weeks later, she had a grand mal seizure. “There’s nothing more frightening than losing these periods of time and feeling completely and utterly out of control,” she recounts. “And for me, I think, that’s what solidified the need for a service dog.” She began the application process.
The service dog instructors at VetDogs determined that Charlie’s skills and Pearsall’s needs would be a match. Their first meeting would be in front of America on the TODAY Plaza.
Pearsall and Charlie spent the day together, and then Charlie returned home with Olivia Poff. He and Pearsall will begin their training together in December, first on campus and then in her home environment.
“I’m completely ecstatic,” Pearsall says. “I feel on so many levels unworthy of such a dog, but I think together we’re going to be a really great team.”