Tucked under the Interstate 26 overpass in a small studio, retired Air Force Sgt. Stacy Pearsall pulls up an unpublished manuscript on her computer as her Corgi, Penny, snoozes in a corner. She wears a polo emblazoned with the logo of the Charleston Center for Photography, where she serves as director. It's a far cry from the heavy body armor that once was her uniform.
Pearsall, who served as a combat photographer from the age of 17, suffered a degenerative neck injury in 2004 when her vehicle was hit by an IED. It was worsened by a second IED years later and was greatly exacerbated when she fell on her neck while rescuing a critically injured soldier during a firefight. She won the Bronze Star Medal and Commendation with Valor for her heroic actions, but her battle injuries make her medically unfit to serve, and she retired in 2008 after nearly 11 years of service. Pearsall's new book, Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera, depicts her years behind the lens, behind enemy lines.
Set for an October release, the book is a collection of photographs and short essays on war. It illustrates Pearsall's experiences and those of her comrades and the Iraqi people in the Diyala province north of Baghdad during the 2007 troop surge, when Pearsall says "every day was sheer terror marked by a few moments of downtime."
Some images show the terror, but more the downtime: soldiers playing Spades in an occupied house, stringing Christmas lights in their combat vehicles, one laughing at another stuck in a hole in a wall. Pearsall laughs as she remembers the time that she fell while surmounting a wall and couldn't get up, rolling around in her armor "like a turtle in a shell."
Pearsall's original idea for Shooter emerged from a journal of her experiences, but her publisher suggested adding images. Pearsall says former comrades were emotionally ready to see the pictures too and kept asking her for them, and she wanted to honor them, their families, the Iraqis she served alongside, and those who lost their lives.
Both the small things and the graphic things Pearsall remembers from the Iraq War have left a lasting impression on her, mentally and physically. She struggles to find words to explain — she speaks openly about her disturbing and often moving experiences, but as a photographer she communicates best visually.
"I think a lot of the writing is more poetic in a way," Pearsall says. "It's not so literal. It's not graphic in nature as in bullets and gore and that stuff. It's more about the small things that kind of leave you with a lasting impression."
Working on the book has been a cathartic experience for Pearsall. "As a photographer, I can't escape the memories, because every memory is attached with every picture and every picture somebody wants to see," Pearsall says. "And it's here or it's there and it's a constant reminder, whereas other soldiers, they can drown out their memories in the bottom of the bottle, or just push it out into a place and never talk about it again."
Pearsall says she enjoys directing the Charleston Center for Photography — taking pictures, teaching — but she would still return "in a heartbeat" to the military if she could, even though her tours in Iraq have left her with chronic pain, a brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Why? The camaraderie, for one. Her "battle buddy" from Iraq, Tech. Sgt. Katie Robinson, is still her best friend. Robinson was a videographer who worked alongside Pearsall, but Robinson's PTSD has gotten to a point where she says she can't wear a uniform or look at her own videos. An enemy sniper almost killed her in Iraq, but the bullet went through her camera and shot off one of her thumbs. When interviewers ask her about her videos, she says it can be draining or can even trigger her PTSD. "For a videographer or photographer, it's imprinted on your retina over and over," Robinson says. She says she might not be able to read Pearsall's book in one sitting.
Pearsall also misses the higher purpose she felt being in the military. "I could sit here and I could take portraits, and they're meaningful to me and they mean a lot, but this moment, when the soldier gets put on the C-17," she points to her photo of a wounded soldier being carried into an aircraft. All the troops onboard had volunteered risking being shot down to turn back and save him. "That was only one moment that will ever happen, and I was lucky enough to be in that moment to share it with the world. And that's not exhilarating, I think it's humbling."
Pearsall says having that purpose taken away and knowing she could never go back was like being on the edge of a very deep cliff. That, and survivor's guilt, contributed to her PTSD. "There were several occasions where I should have died with my friends, and you begin to question, OK, I'm here and this is what I have to look forward to and why didn't I die, why wasn't it me, why couldn't they have lived?" Pearsall says, adding that 118 soldiers died in her area alone on her last tour. "You know, they have kids, I don't. Why does one person get taken and the other person doesn't?"
She says she and her fellow soldiers were taught to avoid acknowledging death, and to wake up every day accepting it as a possibility. Some of her most poignant images deal with the unspeakable subject. One shows two soldiers consoling each other over a fallen brother. "It's kind of a moment, wishing each other well, the best way men do, I guess, a quick pat on the back and you can see that he is not raising an arm at all. One guy really wants to hug and the other guy's just standing there," Pearsall says.
Yet Pearsall's book doesn't just convey sadness. It celebrates her triumphs as a pioneering female soldier and photojournalist who excelled in her dual roles despite adversity. One moment she's slowly searching for words to share her dark memories and the next she's exploding with conviction in an impassioned defense of women's place in combat.
"I never asked for respect and I never demanded it. I always earned it," Pearsall says. Yes, she was a woman, and yes, some in the Army made fun of her for being with the "Chair Force," but she was able to convince the boys she was just another gun. She says the ban on women in combat roles is furthered by uneducated people with little combat experience and is as offensive and archaic as racial segregation.
"There may be women that are not up to par, that are not up to combat standards, but there are men not up to combat standards," she says. "You weed them out through a process of attrition. You set your standards, these are your standards, you either meet them or you don't, if you don't you're out. I met them. When the bullets started flying, I was right there, where the bullets meet the meat."
Pearsall has been in the media often, first as contributor and recently as subject. Among the few women to ever join the elite ranks of combat photographers, she was a soldier taking photographs that not only went to the president and joint chiefs of staff but ran in all the big hitters: Time, the New York Times, CNN, BBC, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and more. She's the only woman to have twice won the National Press Photographer's Military Photographer of the Year Award.
Being a photographer enabled her to see more combat than many female soldiers. The Defense Department still bars women from being assigned to combat units, but Pearsall and her camera were attached to combat units on the front lines. She was featured on PBS Newshour and The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she spoke about her experiences and argued that women should be allowed equal participation in battle.
But, as interesting as Pearsall is, the book is less about her than it is about those by her side. It's not rigidly political or philosophical. Looking back on the meaning of the Iraq War, her feelings are mixed. She is glad it's over, and references "winning hearts and minds" sarcastically. She consoles herself by saying everything happens for a reason, but then she pauses. "I want to buy into that 100 percent, but it's still a hard pill for me to swallow to really think that anyone's life ... that the loss of life is for a reason," she says.
But justifying it wasn't her job, and it's not the goal of her book. She wants everyone to set aside their ideologies when they read it. "It's to honor those I served with, not about honoring the war," Pearsall says.
It's about soldiers who did their jobs and made sacrifices. And it's about one woman who was tasked to both document those sacrifices and make them herself. Judging by her bronze star and award-winning photographs, she did a very good job.
Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera is available for pre-order online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble Booksellers. Pearsall plans to write future books, including a memoir.