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For former combat photographer every day is Veterans Day

Today, Stacy Pearsall completes her mission to photograph veterans across all 50 states

Charlie, a service dog from America’s VetDogs, rests while Stacy Pearsall shoots a portrait of Air Force veteran George Arnott at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Oct. 23 on Oahu. Hawaii was state 46 in Pearsall’s 50-state mission that is the Veterans Portrait Project. She completes her goal today in Nebraska, where her military career began, after capturing images from more than 8,000 veterans. The Maui News / TERRIE ELIKER photos

When the sun sets in Omaha, Neb., today, former Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall will be mission complete.

Pearsall, 39, who taught classes as part of a photo festival on Maui from 2009-11, has made it her mission to photograph veterans. Over the past 11 years and three months, the former aerial combat photographer has traveled across the country, taking more than 8,000 portraits of veterans along the way. It started as a way to feel useful again, while she recovered from her own career-ending combat injuries sustained in Iraq. It was also meant to be a thank-you for their service and to preserve the stories of those veterans, so that those stories would not be forgotten.

Pearsall and her team, including road-warrior assistants Trish Barini, Cali Barini and Des’ola Mecozzi, had already covered 32 states since creating the Veterans Portrait Project in 2008, photographing thousands of veterans and providing complimentary fine art portraits, when Pearsall decided to go for it and launched the Mission Complete Tour in 2019. Over the past five months, the team has covered 18 states to fulfill Pearsall’s pledge to photograph veterans in all 50 states.

Pearsall thought that completing this mission would take a lifetime, she wrote in a Facebook post last week. She never believed that she would complete her goal before she turned 40. And now here she was, approaching the finish line.

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Combat photographer Stacy Pearsall is pictured with her service dog, Charlie. STACY PEARSALL photo

On Oct. 23, I flew to Oahu to assist Pearsall with the project at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. Hawaii was state 46 on the 50-state mission and I was happy to help.

I first met Pearsall over the phone in 2008. A group of us on Maui were hatching a photo festival and as I flipped through a photography magazine, there was a story about a young woman who had just been named military photographer of the year by the National Press Photographers Association. At the time, Pearsall was only the second woman to be chosen for the award and the only woman to win it twice. On the facing page of the magazine was a story about photo tours on Kauai from doors-off helicopters. I put two and two together — aerial combat photographer and helicopters tours — did some Google sleuthing to find her phone number in South Carolina and gave Pearsall a call.

Of course she would love to come to Maui and teach photography to festival attendees. We also planned on Pearsall and her husband, Andy Dunaway (also a combat photographer), leading doors-off helicopter tours over Maui. With our first presenters invited, a signature activity of our fledgling photo festival was born. Pearsall would go on to teach photo classes in 2009, 2010 and 2011 as part of the Maui Photo Festival & Workshops.

I had no idea when I talked to Pearsall back then that she was in the middle of a painful recovery from combat injuries sustained in Iraq that ultimately forced her medical retirement. She was still in her 20s. She never said a word.

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Stacy Pearsall gets an assist from service dog Charlie as she photographs veterans at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Oahu last month.

Military service was the family business: Pearsall’s great-grandfather had fought in World War I; her grandfather and uncle were sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; her father was in the Navy; and her older sister was a nurse in the Air Force. Pearsall knew she wanted to serve. When she graduated from high school, she enlisted. She was just 17.

After basic training, it was time to choose a path. She loved art classes in school and considered being an illustrator and designing posters and web pages for the Air Force, but no such openings were available. There was a slot for a photographer, and while she did not know much about cameras, it seemed like it might be at least creative. She made the leap.

But the reality was a different story.

“I spent my first four years developing film captured by U-2 spy planes,” she said.

Something had to change.

Museum volunteer Michael Andrew Kang shows Stacy Pearsall the restoration work his group does on aircraft at the aviation museum Oct. 24.

“Finally, in 2001, a combat photography slot opened up,” Pearsall wrote in a Guideposts essay from 2014. It was a rare opportunity and she jumped at it.

“We had troops on the ground in Afghanistan,” she wrote. “Photographers had to be able to shoot a camera and a gun almost interchangeably, while carrying 80 pounds of equipment.

“The other soldiers had to trust that you knew how to respond under fire, at a time when women were banned from official combat roles,” she added.

No one was more shocked than Pearsall when she got the nod. She spent many months in training before she was deployed to Iraq.

During her time in service, she traveled to over 41 countries and documented the military’s story. Her photographs were published in newspapers and military websites. Generals and the Joint Chiefs of Staff — even the president — reviewed the work of combat photographers and used it to assist in making decisions on the ground. Over three combat tours, she earned the Bronze Star Medal and Air Force Commendation for Valor for combat actions in Iraq.

In 2004, she survived a blast from an improvised explosive device. She worked through the pain without complaint. But it was an injury sustained in 2007, during an ambush northeast of Baghdad, that ended her active duty career.

Pearsall was manning a machine gun that March day in Baghdad, she wrote in 2014, providing cover for men on the ground atop a huge armored Stryker vehicle, as a “hailstorm of bullets hemmed us in.”

“Below me a soldier waved urgently, an injured man on the ground beside him,” she wrote in a Guideposts essay. ” ‘Open the ramp,’ “ he yelled. ” ‘ We need to get him inside.’ “

“I dropped into the Stryker and lowered the ramp,” she wrote.

But as she ran out to the injured soldier, a communications cord still attached to her helmet yanked her back and knocked her off her feet. Her neck hit the ramp, right at a same point of injury from the 2004 IED blast. In searing pain, she threw off the helmet and dragged the man, twice her size, into the vehicle. He was bleeding from his neck.

“I shoved my fingers into the wound and, praying desperately that he wouldn’t bleed out, yelled for a medic,” she wrote. “No one came. The guys around me were yelling, too. It seemed like forever before one arrived.

” ‘Are you a medic?’ he asked me.

“No. Just a combat photographer,” she replied.

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“It wasn’t that easy to fit in,” Pearsall wrote about her military career in the 2014 essay. “I thought I had to be tougher, more determined, than the men.” She had told no one how much her neck and head hurt after the IED blast in 2004.

“None of the guys who were with me were complaining,” she wrote.

“I worked through the pain,” she wrote. “Injuries were part of the job and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

But the injury in 2007, hitting her neck at the same spot where she had been injured in the IED blast, then dragging a soldier to safety, had been the tipping point.

“Back at the base I got tremors in my hands,” she wrote in Guideposts. “It was all I could do to pick up a camera. I could not hold my head straight without pain radiating through my body.”

Finally, a buddy took her to the doctor. The results were grim. The doctor told her that her neck vertebrae were fused together. He scolded her for not coming in sooner. One more hard fall or blast and she would be paralyzed, he said. With injuries too extensive to treat in theater, she was flown back to Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. Her husband, Andy, whom she had met and married overseas, could not be released with her.

“During my recovery, all I could hear was the doctors telling me what I couldn’t do,” she said in a Facebook post. “I fixated on the loss of my military career.”

She was told she could not stand for prolonged periods or hold and lift a camera ever again.

“I felt defeated and without purpose,” she said. “I didn’t know who I’d be or who I was without a uniform and a camera.” She was depressed, isolated, cut off from friends. She even considered suicide, until thoughts of her still-deployed husband snapped her back.

She was sitting in a VA waiting room in 2008, awaiting treatment, when she was approached by World War II veteran and VA volunteer Mickey Dorsey. He sat down beside her.

“Did you bring your grandfather in for an appointment?” he asked.

“No, sir,” she replied. “I’m a veteran.”

She said there was something about him that reminded him of her great-grandfather. “Sir, where did you serve?”

He told her that he was in the Army in WWII. “I was there when we liberated the concentration camps,” he told her. “That’s something that stays with you.”

“I looked at the lines carved in his face,” she remembered in 2014, “imagining the life he’d lived. Like so many of his generation, he was a hero, fading into the background, almost forgotten.”

When the nurse came for him, Pearsall and Dorsey exchanged contact information before he was on his way.

“Thank you for your service,” she said to Dorsey.

“You too,” he replied. “Welcome home, honey.”

“If there was only something more I could do for him,” Pearsall thought back then. “Had he ever had a professional portrait taken? A keepsake to pass on to his children and grandchildren? I kicked myself for not bringing my camera.”

She wrote that she then looked around the waiting room. It was filled with veterans, “all of them hurting. Feeling alone, abandoned. I knew their pain. I was one of them.”

It was after that encounter in a VA waiting room that she conceived of the Veterans Portrait Project. She wanted to do something for the veterans, so many sitting around her waiting for treatment. She wanted to thank them for their service. And she wanted to keep their stories alive.

Despite doctor’s orders, Pearsall began taking portraits of veterans. Through the work, she discovered a new purpose, she said. She started in that same VA hospital hallway in Charleston, S.C., setting up a makeshift studio with Nikon strobes, taking Dorsey’s portrait and those of others trapped with her in the VA waiting game. She listened to their stories. She promised to print out the best image and bring it back in to them. And she did.

“My heart began to heal with every veteran I met and photographed,” Pearsall said. “Each veteran validated my emotions and reminded me that it’s OK to laugh, to cry, to live.

“To keep my mind on the future and my body in motion,” she added, “I set a crazy goal to photograph veterans in every state.”

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In Hanger 79 at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Oct. 23, the veterans arrived one by one.

Most didn’t really know what to expect. They had heard about the project by word of mouth, posts on social media, a flyer sent to a veterans group or perhaps a published notice. Then most signed up online at veteransportraitproject.com. Some came with photos, mementos, equipment or in uniform. There were men and women, some very old and some in their late 20s. There were visitors and residents, from all walks of life. Korea. Vietnam. Kosovo. Bosnia. Desert Shield. Desert Storm. Army. Navy. Marines. Coast Guard. Air Force.

Pearsall, photo assistant Trish Barini and Pearsall’s service dog Charlie had arrived two days earlier in Honolulu after a stopover (and Veterans Portrait Project shoot) in the San Francisco Bay Area. They set up their studio at the aviation museum, then headed off to the hotel for some rest.

Elissa Lines, executive director of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, had graciously opened the museum’s doors to the project once it was brought to her attention by museum board member Maria Carl. With the help of Katie Moriarty, manager of public programs and volunteers, and a boatload of museum docents and volunteers, the veterans were welcomed and supplied with plenty of snacks, water and hot coffee as they awaited their turn in front of Pearsall’s camera.

What unfolded over the next two days was nothing short of magic. It was part photo shoot, part reunion of sorts, part career counseling, perhaps part therapy session.

As each person sat for their 15 minutes in front of the camera, Pearsall fired off questions as quickly as her studio lights flashed with each release of the shutter.

“What branch of service where you in?” “How did you end up out here?” “Why did you want to be with the Marines?” “What’s it like to be a Navy diver?” “Where are you from originally?” “So there really is a space squadron?”

Pearsall’s first subject, Army veteran Frank Diaz, owns a restaurant and food truck business in Honolulu. As soon as his portrait was done, he called one of his employees and told her, also a veteran, to swing by in the food truck and bring us BBQ lunch when she finished her rounds.

“He sees his mission to feed the military,” former Navy mechanic Desiree Cortes told us. “He wants them to have good food and quick service,” she added, because they only have a short time for lunch. He doesn’t need the business, she added. “It’s his mission.” Cortes said when she came back from service and needed a job, all she had to say was that she was a veteran. Diaz hired her on the spot.

Museum volunteer and Army vet Bill Miller was an instructor pilot in Bosnia and Kosovo. He and Pearsall compared notes to discover they were both in Baghdad at the same time.

“I might have flown with you,” she said.

Janae Sergio arrived in a fabulous dress of her own creation. It was from a fashion line that she was developing, Sergio said, worlds away from the photo of a fresh-faced sailor she brought with her.

There’s an entrepreneurial program for veterans, Pearsall told her. Then Pearsall searched for the information to connect them.

Clinton James Conway and Phillip E. Oppedahl, former combat vets from the Vietnam War who were on vacation with their wives, said they were staying at the same hotel for veterans — the Hale Koa in Waikiki — where Pearsall, Barini and Charlie were bunked.

“Come on down to the Warrior Lounge and we’ll buy you a drink,” they said after they finished their individual 15-minute sittings and a buddy shot of the two of them.

Maria Carl and Michael Rogers, who met and married after their service (she in the Air Force, Rogers in the Navy) and now operate a boutique cacao farm on the island, sat for their individual sessions and then a couples portrait.

Come out to the farm, they offered. “Come at 11 and stay as long as you like.”

The volunteers who spend their retirement days restoring airplanes for the museum all took turns in the studio. Pearsall connected with each one, then walked down with them to the end of the hangar so they could show her how they spent their days, their projects in progress, the beauty of their finished work.

One veteran talked about returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder. The family had not been supportive of enlistment and now was resentful that they didn’t know the person who had returned.

Don’t waste your time trying to get back to where you were before you left, Pearsall counseled. Make your peace with who you are now.

Pearsall described how her service dog, Charlie, helped with her own PTSD, waking her from nightmares. She shared how she has spent years pretending she was OK and not in pain, when she clearly wasn’t. In the end they exchanged contacts, the promise to send information about securing a service dog, then a hug.

Some veterans stayed for hours. Volunteers and museum staff dropped by again and again. Each encounter was a connection. Each story unique and yet for Pearsall, familiar. Each departure was with a hug, some Veterans Portrait Project gifts, and a “thank you for your service.”

As the last of the 39 photo subjects left Hanger 79 at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum last month, Pearsall and Barini began to pack up the studio equipment.

Pearsall’s injury had flared in San Francisco days earlier, resulting in plenty of pain in her neck and back. Still, no one who had met her over the past two days had a clue. Service dog Charlie had jumped to attention when necessary, “bracing” to help her stand or act as a canine tripod to steady her camera. Always by her side. When Pearsall needed a break, she and Charlie would walk the hanger among the vintage planes. She would throw the ball for Charlie to chase. And then it was back to work without complaint.

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On Tuesday, Pearsall and her team shot in Indiana. Thursday, they crossed Wisconsin off the list. Saturday, Pearsall captured images of veterans in Iowa. Today, in Omaha, Neb., she finishes her mission in the state where her military career started with basic training.

“I’m a firm believer that everything happens when it’s meant to happen and not a moment before,” she wrote on Facebook last week.

“I defined myself by the uniform I wore and thought that was the only way I could serve,” she wrote. “I’d overlooked the fact that a uniform is merely a symbol; the true service is done through the actions of those who wear it.

“Turns out my military service, while important, was simply a stepping stone,” she added, “a necessary milestone on my journey to my true destination.

“I had to experience all I did, the good and the bad, so I could better relate to the people I was always meant to meet — those 8,000-plus veterans.”

With mission complete, is the Veterans Portrait Project done as well? Pearsall said she will continue to take portraits as long as she is physically able to do so, “whenever that may be.”

And while there have been sponsors along the way, like Delta Airlines, who flew her team to Hawaii, and the venue provided by the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, much of this more-than-decadelong tour has been self-funded. On Oahu, most of Pearsall’s expenses went on her own credit card.

To learn more about Pearsall’s efforts, visit veteransportraitproject.com, which includes the collection of photos from the project as well as a link to support to the cause.

* Terrie Eliker can be reached at teliker@mauinews.com.