'Real Warrior' finds path to physical, emotional healing

  • Published
  • By Elaine Sanchez
  • American Forces Press Service
Black-and-white photos of Vietnam-era veterans line the wall at a Veterans Affairs center. Some are smiling and others are gazing at a distant point, but in all, an unseen light catches the emotion in their eyes.

The photographer, now retired Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, a veteran of the more recent wars, strove to capture the character and the experience etched in their faces while listening to their recollections of war.

"Their stories are amazing," she said.

This line of photos on a wall in a VA center in Charleston, S.C., serves not only as Sergeant Pearsall's veteran tribute, but also a milestone in her recovery from physical and emotional wounds of war.

Just a few months earlier, Sergeant Pearsall had nearly given up hope of working as a photographer again or of taking photos that didn't serve as a haunting reminder of a painful past.

Sergeant Pearsall's photography career took off while she was in the Air Force. As a combat photographer, she took thousands of pictures over the course of her Air Force career, earning her accolades and awards from leaders at all levels of her chain of command.

She traveled extensively for her job, so she felt prepared when she was tasked to deploy to Baghdad in September 2003.

As part of her duties, Sergeant Pearsall documented a school rebuilding process, and when the school marked its opening with a ceremony in February 2004, she attended. After the ceremony, as the unit prepared to head out, she was riding in a HUMVEE that was making a tight turn on a dead-end street, when a roadside bomb detonated.

Sergeant Pearsall was sitting behind the driver's seat. The impact threw her forward, and her head hit the back of the seat. But more concerned about her ears, which were bleeding from the concussive sound, she didn't feel the neck pain until hours later. She was seen by a doctor who chalked it up to whiplash, and she was back out on a mission the next day.

Months later, the headaches and vertigo lingered, as did the severe neck pain. But concerned about her Air Force career, Sergeant Pearsall didn't seek treatment. Her deployment ended in March, and she became a student at Syracuse University for a year to hone her photography skills.

She had become accustomed to hiding her pain and the emotional after-effects of combat from others, but was unable to keep them from a friend -- a fellow photographer and Vietnam veteran -- who recognized the signs of post-traumatic stress. He connected her with a vet center, where she began counseling.

"It definitely helped me work through a lot of emotions and stress," she said. "I knew whatever I said to (my therapist) wouldn't go back to my active-duty command. There was no threat of losing my career."

After school, Sergeant Pearsall went on back-to-back deployments, first to Africa, then to Lebanon, and finally back to Iraq.

The difference between her first and second Iraq deployments was like night and day, she said. In 2003, she never fired her weapon, but in 2007, she fired it constantly.

Her unit experienced heavy casualties in Diyala province. Sergeant Pearsall saw bodies of Iraqis who had been executed and mutilated, and comrades shot just a few feet away, which she later had to photograph.

People getting wounded or killed was a daily occurrence, she said.

A series of back-to-back events took their toll. Sergeant Pearsall lost three teammates, and a day later, her video partner was wounded and evacuated. Another friend had been shot in the head right in front of her.

"Nothing prepares you for the death of your friends," she said.

Her photos from that time are haunting.

In one photo, three Soldiers are gathered in a dimly lit room, faces downward as if in reflection, a single light shining through a window. Two days before, their teammate had been shot in the head just 10 feet away from where they were standing. In another photo, two Soldiers are comforting each other -- one close to tears -- after the loss of a friend the day before.

"I'm eternally tied to the photographs that I made, and those Soldiers who were in those photographs," she said.

The photographer said she had to keep her emotions in check, for her teammates and for the troops who served under her.

"I think I handled things pretty well by just not addressing the emotions at the time," she said.

Sergeant Pearsall was injured again, further damaging her neck, when a roadside bomb detonated during a mission.

A few months later, her unit was ambushed. She was running out to help a wounded Soldier in the street, when a cord attached to her helmet snapped her back. Her head slammed on a Stryker vehicle, again injuring her neck.

The next morning, she felt neck pain unlike anything she had felt before, and she knew it was time to get help. The doctors did an X-ray, and she was on a helicopter that day. Her neck injury had grown so severe, the doctors told her, that if she had jolted her head one more time, it would have severed her spinal cord.

Sergeant Pearsall's greatest fear -- losing her career -- was now at hand, she said. And her husband, a strong source of support, was deployed at the time.

"It was a really ugly time in my life," she said.

The years of wearing 85 pounds of gear had wreaked havoc on her neck. The doctors told her she wouldn't be able to work as a photographer or pursue another passion -- riding horses -- again.

But Dr. Patrick Lovegrove, an Air Force flight surgeon at the time, offered her hope through prolotherapy treatment, which involves the insertion of a 4-inch needle down to the bone.

The results lasted for more than two years. Sergeant Pearsall was able to get off of the pain killers and finally on the road to physical recovery.

Invested in her recovery, her doctor separated from the Air Force, but continued to donate his services to her until the therapy ended in 2009 and she switched over to the VA system.

"I'll always owe him a debt of gratitude," she said.

The therapy enabled her to ride horses and take photos again, but she knew she'd always have some degree of pain from her degenerative condition.

"It was either adapt to life or shrivel up and die," she said.

Sergeant Pearsall said she chose to adapt.

But the loss of her Air Force career affected her, as did the emotional wounds of war that she had pushed aside to focus on her physical recovery. About a year after her deployment, she started seeing a mental health therapist.

"The military told me I couldn't be a photographer for them anymore," she said. "Mentally, that put me on a roller coaster. What am I good for?"

Sergeant Pearsall found an answer at the VA medical center in Charleston. While she sat for hours in waiting rooms, she began to notice the men and women around her. Most of the veterans there were from the Vietnam era, and she reached out to hear their stories. She felt inspired to bring her camera and take their portraits, leading to the project that now fills a wall there.

"Just because I was disabled, didn't make me unable," she said. "Once I wrapped my own mind around that, I could do more."

Sergeant Pearsall plans to keep up her veteran portrait work at VA hospitals in Georgia and North Carolina, then here, and in Maryland and Virginia as well. In another effort aimed at helping veterans, Sergeant Pearsall provides horse therapy to veterans through a nonprofit group.

Most recently, Sergeant Pearsall offered to have her story documented for the Defense Department's "Real Warriors" campaign, in hopes of encouraging other veterans and service members to seek help. The campaign is sponsored by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, and it features stories of service members who sought psychological treatment and continued successful military or civilian careers. Her profile is now posted on the Real Warriors website, http://realwarriors.net/.

"My hope is that if they watch my story, they'll find a way to off-load their burden," she said. "Everyone wears a different amount, but it's not necessary to carry it around with you all the time."

Sergeant Pearsall said the stigma that kept her from getting help has been greatly reduced through projects such as the Real Warrior campaign and through efforts by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.

For service members still leery about getting care, Sergeant Pearsall recommended online support networks, blogs and forums where people can go and shed their burdens.

"You'll see you're not alone," she said. "The loss of sleep, nightmares, anxiety, road rage -- they're products of war."

Sergeant Pearsall also hopes leaders will gain a greater understanding of mental health issues, and above all, avoid judgment.

"Be positive and supportive," she said. "You're the first in line for that service member."

While it's been difficult to discuss, Sergeant Pearsall said, she believes it's important to share her story.

"If I get one person to get help if they're having issues, then I feel like I've been successful," she said.