What: Stacy Pearsall lecture, silent auction
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sleeping Lady Retreat Center, Leavenworth
Cost: $20 general; $15 seniors, students, veterans; dinner and lecture $59
Information: sleepinglady.com, 548-6344
LEAVENWORTH — In the world’s most dangerous war zones, Stacy Pearsall laced up her combat boots before dawn to meet her unit in full body armor, a camera, a vest full of gear and a gun.
Pearsall was in her early 20s — a kind face and subdued smile — serving as one of the few women combat photographers in the U.S. Air Force. Her mission: to accompany different military units and capture the terror, brotherhood, grief and waiting game they encountered day by day.
“I think there is something wonderful in documenting the humanity surrounding war,” Pearsall said in an interview with The World earlier this week. “Being able to share the story of combat so other people can understand the price of war, that’s what kept drawing me to it.”
Pearsall will speak of her experience as a photographer, soldier and veteran at the Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort on Saturday. Proceeds from the ticket sales and silent auction will benefit Project At Ease, a program that gives select veterans and their families several days of retreat, with free food, lodging and outdoor excursions in Leavenworth.
Pearsall, now 32, enlisted when she was 17, the daughter of a family whose military history dates back to the Revolutionary War. During her 10 years in the service, she earned the rank of staff sargent and traveled to 41 countries covering trainings, natural disasters and military operations.
Some of her most powerful work came from three combat tours in Iraq, starting in 2004. Pearsall said the units she was assigned to often met her with apprehension. They saw her as an outsider — from another military branch and the opposite gender — who might jeopardize the camaraderie and cohesion that made them a solid team.
“Initially there’s a level of tension, because when you do something in front of camera the whole world sees, because now it’s documented,” Pearsall explained. “I find the camera brings out the best in people. Generally people want to do good. I think their actions speak through what they do.”
While she never felt threatened, Pearsall had to work extra hard to earn respect. Over time, most units came to accept her as one of the guys, she said.
“When (expletive) hit the fan, there was an ultimate expectation that I would man up like everyone else,” Pearsall said. “No one hovered over me or was overprotective. Everyone had a job to do, and I had to do mine.”
At the end of the day, she uploaded her best work via satellite to the Joint Combat Camera Center in Washington, D.C., where the photos would be forwarded to military brass, the historical archive and in some cases, news media including the New York Times, Newsweek and Time Magazine.
“The expectations were the same as those for civilian journalists,” she said. “The limitations were the same, but I think where it differs is I may have more of an advantage being in the right place and right time more often.”
She was one of two women awarded Military Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association, and the only woman to receive the honor twice.
Her finger on the shutter, Pearsall snapped scenes of enemy fire, the chaos of a roadside bomb and the evacuation of wounded soldiers by helicopter. She said she could count on one hand the number of times she had to put down her camera and pick up a weapon.
“In a way, the camera was a shield. It’s a blinder. It’s what separates you from reality,” Pearsall said. “At some point, I probably learned this during my first deployment to Iraq, you have to accept death as part of the occupation. If you fixate on how you’re going to die and when your time is going to come, you’ll never get anything done.”
In 2004, her unit was hit by a roadside bomb and she suffered cervical spine damage in her neck and a traumatic brain injury. She hid the severity of her wounds in order to stay on the job. A few years later, she was hurt in another bomb attack and again during an ambush. She earned the Bronze Star and Commendation with Valor for her actions under fire and never returned to the battlefield. After a year of recovery, she retired when doctors told her that her body could no longer handle the rigors of combat.
“I went through a rough time,” Pearsall said. “My vision had always been short-sighted. I had planned on being a combat photographer for 20 years or more. I was at a crossroads.”
As she sought treatment at veterans hospitals, the veterans assumed she was visiting a grandfather or husband. Eventually, they came to know her and told her their stories of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. She took up a camera again to take their portraits, eventually amassing a collection of hundreds.
“I was really inspired by their stories,” she said. “A lot of them were not unlike mine.”
She bought a photography business in Charleston, S.C., and works as a freelance news photographer. She also won several medals, including gold, in the U.S. Paralympic-sponsored Wounded Warrior Games.
More than anything, she spends her time advocating for veterans, especially women combat veterans. On a policy level, she’s pushing for changes within Veterans Affairs that bring awareness to women’s issues, like the need for private gynecological exams and providing support for rape victims in facilities separate from men.
“It’s one thing to put a magnet on a car, but it’s another to literally show your support,” she said. “These are individuals who go and do what their country asks of them, no matter what their political views are. What can people do? Acknowledge them, send them a written letter or send a care package every once in a while. Go to a senior home and find veterans who have no family left, and listen to their stories. It means a lot.”
Rachel Hansen: 664-7139