Veterans Portrait Project Aims to Showcase Untold Stories

Marine Corps veteran Angela Madsen (left) and Army veteran Indira Glennon (right) are two of the veterans featured in Stacy Pearsall’s traveling female veteran athlete exhibition. (Photo courtesy of Stacy Pearsall)
Marine Corps veteran Angela Madsen (left) and Army veteran Indira Glennon (right) are two of the veterans featured in Stacy Pearsall’s traveling female veteran athlete exhibition. (Photo courtesy of Stacy Pearsall)

Stacy Pearsall knows that images can speak louder than words -- especially when it comes to things that are hard to say.

"I think that each veteran has a unique story, and what I try to do is capture that in one frame," she said. "I try to capture the reality rather than what someone might project. … I try to use my experience as a combat veteran myself to break down that barrier."

An Air Force veteran turned civilian professional photographer, Pearsall has won many accolades both during her time in service and after leaving it in 2008.

But the work she is now best known for through the Veterans Portrait Project grew from an unlikely source: the VA hospital waiting room.

Injured by improvised explosive devices in Iraq in 2004 and 2007, Pearsall found herself spending hours in Department of Veterans Affairs waiting rooms with veterans of all eras.

Heavily medicated for her injuries and feeling angry and defensive over how she had been treated as a female veteran by both VA and male veterans, she was in what she describes as "a really dark place."

But one day while waiting for yet another appointment in the crowded VA reception area, she took a chance and responded to a World War II veteran who was looking for someone with whom to talk.

"Up walks this elderly gentleman who looks bubbly and happily smiling, and I'm thinking, 'This is the last thing I need.' The rage part of me was just telling me to tell him where to go, and the kinder, gentler part was saying, 'Ask him if there's something I can do for him,' " she recalls.

"He told me about being in the Army, and landing in Normandy. It was at that moment that I realized I was walking around thinking everyone was prejudiced against me, and it turns out I was just as prejudiced."

That experience pushed Pearsall to look for a way to honor both that specific World War II veteran and others, while also helping showcase the diversity of the veteran community.

"The only way I really knew how was through photography," she said. "I wanted to ... set about making things right not only for myself, but to help educate others who don't know who veterans are or how diverse a community we are."

And so the Veterans Portrait Project was born.

Since starting the project, she has taken photos of almost 7,000 veterans in 27 states during 135 events, with more scheduled soon.

And right now, an exhibit of her work featuring female veteran athletes compiled for the VA's Center for Women Veterans is part of a traveling exhibit at VA hospitals nationwide -- rolled out as part of Women's History Month.

The exhibit, which details the athletes in photos along with a brief biography of each, was organized in partnership with national nonprofit Team Red, White & Blue and several other nonprofits. Many of the women featured are members of that organization or have used the VA's adaptive sports program.

The female athlete portraits are especially important, Pearsall said, because they tell a story beyond the typically male-dominated veteran narrative.

"This exhibition is really special because, as a woman veteran, I can really understand where they are coming from," she said.

"With this set of pictures, it hopefully strikes a chord with the viewers in that it will help change what is conjured in our mind's eye when the word 'veteran' is said ... and will perhaps motivate other veterans to get to know each other on a more personal level," Pearsall said.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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