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Portraits of veterans show us what service looks like

After 10 years as an Air Force combat photographer, Stacy Pearsall sustained an injury that ultimately ended her career. While receiving medical treatment, she picked up her camera again in order to capture the diversity of the nation’s military service members. Pearsall shares the healing process she experienced in creating the "Veterans Photo Project."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally tonight, on this Veterans Day weekend, a former Air Force combat photographer tells us of her veterans photo project.

    Her goal? For Americans to see the diversity of the nation's military service members and veterans and to honor their commitment, one photo at a time.

  • Stacy Pearsall:

    It hit me that the Veterans Portrait Project is more than just a picture. It's a place where I can talk and relate to other veterans and allow them that space and time to relay and relieve themselves of their burdens.

    What started out as a way for me to begin my healing has been an ongoing healing for others too. And I realized that while I felt completely alone, my feelings and experiences weren't wholly individual, that they weren't just within me.

    My name is Stacy Pearsall. And I was an Air Force combat photographer.

    I spent 10 years covering military operations worldwide. And that brought me into conflict zones. And during my last deployment to Iraq, I sustained injuries that ultimately ended my career.

    After being medically retired, I began getting medical treatment at my local VA hospital. And it was there that I began the Veterans Portrait Project.

    The project is a way to let everyone know the wonderfully diverse group of people that is the veteran community. And it was also a way for me to begin the healing process, because I was still trying to overcome physical and emotional traumas from my time in combat.

    And in getting the camera back in my hands, it gave me a sense of purpose.

    So far, I photographed in 27 states and over 6,000 veterans, and I'm really looking forward to getting the rest of the states over the next couple of years.

    One of the photos that sticks out to me is the one I took of my sister, who was the first female A-10 crew chief in Air Force history. My sister is my hero. And to be able to give her the gift of my photography and knowing that she was the one who inspired that was really important to me.

    There was also another veteran I met at a VFW convention. And he began to tell me that his job was to identify soldiers based upon the remains that were left after they were killed in action. And we sat there and we talked for a long while, until I began to hear this struggled sobbing over my shoulder, at which point I was broken away from this very intense conversation, and I could see his wife was weeping.

    Afterwards, his wife came and hugged me and said that was the first time she ever heard him talk about his experience in Vietnam, and that she didn't know what his job was up until that point.

    It's mentally draining and emotionally draining. But I also think, at the same time, it is what feeds me and what keeps me going, because, if it wasn't for this service and this purpose, I would scarcely find a purpose to keep going.

    The Veterans Portrait Project is a way to honor the service of those who made that sacrifice, and for posterity, so that our children's children, they will always those individuals that made up the greater sum that is the military.

    For veterans like myself, every day is Veterans Day. And for me, the project is a way to remind the American people that that 1 percent of the American population did raise their right hand and say, I will lay my life on the line for you, in defense of our great nation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what a great gift you have given us. Thank you.

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