Photos from the Front 

Combat photographer and Air Force veteran Stacy Pearsall is part of the Halsey Institute's inside look at the War on Terror

War on Terror: Inside/Out — Photographs by Christopher Sims and Stacy Pearsall
On view through Feb. 27
Free
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
54 St. Philip St.
(843) 953-5680

View complete galleries from Stacy Pearsall and Christopher Sims here

Stacy Pearsall has never been good with words. What she saw in Iraq during two tours only makes them harder to come by. She knows what John McCain meant by leaving "with honor," but feels Vietnam has little bearing on the War on Terror.

We sent volunteers to Iraq, for one thing, who didn't know who the enemy was. Her friend Donny was killed by a sniper. Her friend Katie had a thumb amputated after being shot. Soldiers feared their throats would be slit in their sleep. Food was often poisoned. Pearsall herself was wounded twice in combat, once while carrying a man to safety.

Pearsall is proud of doing what her country asked of her. A soldier doing her duty, and leaving Iraq in decent shape, defines "honor." But she has doubts, perhaps the deepest wound of all. It's hard to sleep when memories of what she experienced in that country keep her up at night.

click to enlarge Stacy Pearsall
  • Stacy Pearsall

"I hope I left with honor," she says.

A former combat photographer who retired from the Air Force in August, Pearsall is now director of the Charleston Center for Photography, a new local nonprofit. Her work has been used by The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ, and CNN. And she was twice named military photographer of the year, the only woman to achieve such distinction.

Words aren't her forte, but Pearsall has her pictures. She hopes the work on display at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, one of Charleston's most high-profile venues, will tell the story of what it felt like to be "down range." There's no better time than now.

One of the campaign promises of President Barack Obama was to set a 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. The Halsey show, called The War on Terror: Inside/Out, has been timed to open with the ascent of the Obama administration. She shares the show with documentary photographer Christopher Sims, a professor at Duke University.

Pearsall comes from a military family. She was 17 when she joined the Air Force. She broke into an elite corps of combat photographers, a macho bunch where chicks are suspect. She loves her band of brothers. They fought for her; she fought for them. She thinks the invasion was a good thing. She saw how badly Iraqi women had it. But the time has come, she believes, to leave Iraq. That's why she cautiously voted for Obama.

"I hope he keeps his promise," she says.


click to enlarge STACY PEARSALL

"Apocalyptic Landscape"

Like thousands of soldiers, Pearsall has post-traumatic stress disorder. One can visibly observe her stuffing down emotion as she recollects her time in the Middle East. She doesn't sleep well or feel like eating. She's in therapy, but it will be a long time before she can feel normal again after moving from "100 miles an hour to five miles an hour."

"Apocalyptic Landscape" illustrates the feeling. It shows what an insurgent IED (improvised explosive device) can do to rubber and metal. U.S. Army soldiers are used to sights like this. On this day, March 4, 2007, two people were killed by enemy fire.

A similar blast once rocked the Humvee Pearsall was in. The force of it threw the top of her head into the seat in front of her, crunching the vertebrae in her neck while tearing muscles and tendons. The injury never properly healed. During her second tour, she saved a marine by carrying him, his body armor, her body armor, and her cameras. The next day, she couldn't stand up. A correct diagnosis didn't come until months later.

Hospitalized for a year, Pearsall was forced to face her injuries. She didn't want to leave the Air Force. It had been all she'd known for more than a decade. Pearsall found herself in the thick of an identity crisis. "If I didn't have the Air Force, then who was I?" she says.

Fortunately, Jack Alterman was aiming to take the Charleston Center for Photography to the next level. So he hired Pearsall after she retired. Since then, Pearsall and the Center's board of directors have turned it into a nonprofit. New classes have been designed, a lecture series continues, and more is being planned.


click to enlarge STACY PEARSALL

"No Room at the Inn"

The bonds forged between soldiers last. Pearsall knows friendships endure. Soldiers eat and sleep together, crammed into armored vehicles together. They are bored together. They even urinate in front of each other.

They also felt terror together. Soldiers often couldn't see where threats were coming from. Sometimes Sunnis were shooting at them. Sometimes, Syrian militia. Sometimes, al-Qaida. An Iraqi cook poisoned an entire company, Pearsall says. Troops bolted themselves into sleeping quarters. They feared having their throats cut.

"You never knew who the enemy was no matter how much you trusted them," she says.

Death often came from above. Pearsall's close friend Donny was riding in an armored vehicle thinking he was safe behind bullet-proof glass. There was a small opening, though, where he could look out. That was enough for a sniper.

Sometimes, death came randomly. In this photograph, called "No Room at the Inn" (at right, taken March 23, 2007), U.S. Army Spec. Aaron Kramer sleeps on the roof of a combat post in Shakarat, Iraq, because there's no more room in the barracks.

At least he's trying to sleep.

It must be hard to drift off to the sounds of enemy fire whizzing overhead. Then again, perhaps he's thinking about his friend Nimo Tauala, who just a few days prior had been killed by one of those stray bullets on that very spot.


click to enlarge STACY PEARSALL

"Goodbye"

Her job was to chronicle war. When asked how she could think about photography under fire, she says she fell back on her training to remain focused on the story.

Telling the story. That's what matters. In this photograph, "Goodbye," friends reflect on the life of 19-year-old Ryan R. Berg, who was shot and killed while standing guard. He died where they are standing on Jan. 27, 2007.Pearsall took the shot while they were trading stories about Berg. It was their way of honoring him.

Their stories, though, are incomplete. What's missing is how much Berg will be missed. What's missing is that his compatriots are telling stories about him — and that they are too rocked by grief to say more than that.

"I want to do this show, because I know how much these guys did for each other and I know they can't do it for themselves," she says of War on Terror. "If I can tell others what it felt like to them, then it's cleansing."

She is their visual spokeswoman. Part of that story is that it's time to say goodbye to Iraq. Right or wrong, they took care of each other. They answered the call. And she wants to believe that duty is enough, that honor is enough, to keep the demons away at night.

In passing, she mentions a time when a little girl tried to give Pearsall a live grenade. Thinking of the girl, Pearsall's eyes drift off. According to the photographer, the little girl was apprehended and taken into custody.

"I've seen enough to last a lifetime and I'm not even 30," Pearsall says. "Leaving Iraq doesn't take anything away from us. It doesn't diminish the dead."


"Brotherhood"

Gender shapes her photography. It colors the world inside the frame.

Women are still not the norm in the military. They drive trucks, work in kitchens, administrate whatever needs administrating. But men usually fight. Even now, when she goes to the VA Hospital, she has to explain that yes, she was indeed wounded in action and that yes, she's entitled to all the benefits accorded to combat veterans.

Pearsall exudes warmth, a quality that surely allowed soldiers to let their guards down. She gave up part of herself for them, and they gave up part of themselves for her. That's the meaning of brotherhood.

But she was the sister. Because she's a woman, Pearsall says, these tough men, too tough to acknowledge weakness, too vulnerable to admit being afraid, could cry. Men can't do that with other men, but they could take the chains off their hearts in front of Pearsall.

"They could confide in me," she says. "Intimacy was hard to get to. These guys were so guarded. We were losing four and five guys a week. I know them on a personal level. They got used to me."

"Brotherhood" is the result of that familiarity. In it we can see Staff Sgt. Branden Embry comfort his buddy after learning that four of their comrades had been blown apart by a roadside bomb in Diyala Province, Iraq, on Feb. 15, 2007. That month saw 85 service members killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, 12 in Diyala Province.


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