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A Life Under Fire: Combat Photographer Captures, Carries Wounds of War

March 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Combat photographers have been documenting the terror, violence and boredom of war since the invention of photography. Tom Bearden profiles Air Force Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, who has documented the effects of war -- and has paid a heavy price.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, images of wounded warriors taken by a combat veteran who wants Americans to see the impact of war one picture at a time.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has the story.

TOM BEARDEN: Combat photographers have been documenting the terror, the violence and the boredom of war ever since the invention of photography. America’s 21st century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different.

These pictures were taken by Air Force Sgt. Stacy Pearsall. She is one of a very small number women to have been admitted to the elite ranks of combat photographers.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL (RET.), U.S. Air Force: I joined the Air Force at 17. And it just seemed like a natural thing to do, since the majority of my family served in one branch of the military or another. And the military history of my family goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

TOM BEARDEN: She spent four years processing film from U-2 spy planes before she became a member of what is virtually an all-male club.

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SGT. STACY PEARSALL: So, I was pretty excited when I got my acceptance into that unit. And there was always going to be those few in the bunch that are sort of the naysayers as to how successful you will or won’t be as a female in that unit. And that made it really tough.

TOM BEARDEN: Pearsall says some were downright hostile.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: I had a guy tell me to my face that he didn’t believe that women belonged in the military and that they’re better served in the kitchen.

I felt, as a woman, that I didn’t want to give anybody any reason to not believe or have faith in me. So, I worked extra hard all the time. When people were sleeping, I wasn’t. When people were partying, I was training.

TOM BEARDEN: She traveled to some 41 countries during her career. She was attached mostly to Army and special forces units, where she experienced everything those soldiers did, living rough, risking her life, even having to use her weapon to defend herself. She took tens of thousands of pictures and won a shelf full of awards.

She is one of only two women to win the Military Photographer of the Year award from the National Press Photographers Association, and she won it twice.

Some of the pictures have amazing backstories, like the day she was aboard a cargo plane that needed to take off before sunrise to avoid enemy ground fire. The pilot was asked to delay the departure so a badly wounded soldier could make the flight. If he missed it, he would likely die. But that would mean risking getting shot down.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: He got on the intercom and said, hey, there’s a critically wounded soldier. It’s really going to be a show of hands who wants to stay and wait and who wants to go. And there wasn’t even a question. They said stay and everybody raised their hand. There was no doubt.

The helicopter literally lands off to the side. The medics grab him, and just one frame, that’s all I had, one frame. Then they pulled him off and they started walking up the ramp, click. And then I ran to the ramp and we were off.

And he survived because everybody sacrificed their lives — or put their lives in danger for him. And I think that that’s a real representation about what it’s like to be in this fraternity we call the military.

TOM BEARDEN: Pearsall is smiling in most of the pictures taken of her overseas. She doesn’t seem to smile very easily today, perhaps because she’s in nearly constant pain, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at her.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: Toward the end of my second tour in Iraq, outside of Baghdad, I was hit by a roadside bomb. We were traveling without doors on, so we took the — pretty much the whole thing.

And I hurt my neck pretty good because I impacted the seat in front of me, so traumatic brain injury and cervical spine injury.

TOM BEARDEN: That was in 2004. She didn’t see a doctor because she was afraid of what others might have thought.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: When I was hurt, nobody knew. I kept that very close to my chest, because I felt like, if I gave — if I let them into that world about having a weakness, then that’s all they would ever focus on, was that: Oh, she’s a woman. She’s weak. She can’t handle it.

TOM BEARDEN: She was hurt by another IED in 2007 and then again during an ambush.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: I wouldn’t be able to grip things or hold things and they would just drop out of my hands. And I had some pretty bad nerve pain just rocking all the way down my right side. And I knew I was in a world of hurt.

TOM BEARDEN: She finally sought help, and doctors told her, her military career was over.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: I laid on that couch and I stared at my ceiling. And I was like, what kind of life is this for me? I can either — you know, I was 27 years old when I got wounded. Like, do I — do I accept defeat and just do what they tell me to do and — or get on with my life and just deal with the new me and the new limitations I do have or push through them?

TOM BEARDEN: Despite being told she shouldn’t carry the equipment anymore, Pearsall decided to continue her photographic career as a civilian.

ANDY DUNAWAY, husband of Sgt. Stacy Pearsall: Hey, honey, what’s going on?

TOM BEARDEN: She and her husband, Andy Dunaway, also a retired Air Force combat photographer, opened a studio in Charleston, S.C.

She spends a lot of time working on a personal project, taking portraits of military veterans. She spent part of this day aboard the USS Yorktown, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that is now a museum ship. Former crew members were having a reunion in Charleston. She hauled several bags of equipment and set up a studio off to the side on the hangar deck, and later admitted it was painful.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: A while back, I started a thing I like to call the Veterans Portrait Project. And it was — I started doing it after it was wounded. And I met so many great veterans while I was at the VA getting medical care that I just started bringing my camera and making portraits.

And then I started bring a backdrop and some lights. And then the next thing I know, I had like 300-and-some pictures. He was part of the liberation crew in Poland.

TOM BEARDEN: Eighty-eight of those pictures now hang in the hallway of the Robert (sic) H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston. Many are people she met there while getting treatment for her spinal injuries and PTSD.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: I met all kinds of people, from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and every skirmish in between.

TOM BEARDEN: Some of them were deeply troubled.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: I was told that, before I made his portrait, he hadn’t really talked to anybody in weeks. So he walked up, and he stood there, and I made this portrait.

And then afterwards, you know, he said, “Thank you.”

And it was the first words he had spoken in weeks. So I felt really touched that, in a way, I could have that impact on him. And we — though we didn’t exchange many words, we talked a lot, and I think that’s what’s really special about this project.

TOM BEARDEN: Pearsall hopes to publish the pictures and send a message.

SGT. STACY PEARSALL: If we just kind of forget about them in the mountains of Afghanistan, what service are we doing them? They’re only serving us, and it should be a two-way street.

And, sorry, it’s hard for me not to get mad about that, because it’s like not acknowledging their sacrifice at all. And putting — putting a magnet on your car that says “Support Our Troops,” that’s fine, but do it in more than just a magnet. Do it in words. You know, write them a letter and say thank you.

There — for me, there was nothing, nothing more rewarding than to get a handwritten letter from an elementary school kid that says — it’s totally misspelled and everything — that says thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Pearsall’s photographs are on exhibit at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey through Veterans Day, Nov. 11.