PBS' 'After Action' Takes a Personal Look at the Lives of Veterans Forever Changed by Military Service

Decorated combat veteran Stacy Pearsall hosts PBS' acclaimed series "After Action." (Des’ola Mecozzi Photography, SCETV)

Stacy Pearsall is one of the most decorated military combat photographers in history, a recipient of the Bronze Star, an Air Medal and an Air Force Commendation Medal with Valor. She's also the recipient of a slew of civilian awards and accolades -- including an honorary doctorate from The Citadel and the title "Champion of Change" by the White House -- and the author of two books, one a retrospective on her combat career and the other a field guide to photojournalism.

But it was other veterans' stories, not her own, that inspired her to co-create and host PBS' acclaimed series "After Action," which features powerful conversations on military life from the veterans who lived it. The show's second season begins in May 2024.

Army veterans Bobby Tyner and Elba Barr discuss the health effects of being exposed to hazardous chemicals in After Action's “Toxic Exposure.” (Des’ola Mecozzi Photography, SCETV)

In many ways, Pearsall is the perfect host for such conversations. The fighting she documented during her deployment to Iraq in 2003 left her with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which would ultimately end her military career. After leaving the service, she was inspired by the stories of other veterans and began the Veterans Portrait Project, capturing the images of those who served in their post-military lives.

"I ended up traveling to all 50 states," Pearsall recently told Military.com. "I met and photographed over 8,500 [veterans]. I think what I realized in that journey was a disconnect between most veterans and their loved ones and really their communities. We don't often talk about our military experiences for a number of reasons. ... What I found was by not talking openly about it, there's this huge divide between us and them."

She connected with a friend, Don Godish, who happened to be director of national content for South Carolina Educational Television. She pitched an idea she had, where veterans could sit and speak candidly with each other about important topics in their lives without worrying about who else was in the room. The two began to collaborate on what would become "After Action," which finished its first season in 2023.

Decorated Iraq War combat photographer Stacy Pearsall hosts "After Action" from her home in South Carolina. (Des’ola Mecozzi Photography, SCETV)

Hosted by Pearsall from her home in South Carolina, she planned the first season to discuss what she believed were some of the most pressing issues facing military members and veterans today, such as military sexual trauma and the problems with coming home from deployments. Based on those topics, she was pretty sure there wouldn't be a Season 2. She was wrong, and planned the second season to dig deeper into the subgroups of people who comprise the U.S. military.

"What was unexpected with Season 1 was how well-received it was," Pearsall said. "It was actually seen by people outside of the United States as well. People from the armed forces in Canada were writing in and talking about how it really resonated within their communities."

The coming season will feature Gold Star children who later joined the military, victims of toxic exposure and what chaplains face downrange -- some of which might surprise even veteran viewers.

"I sat down with chaplains from three different faiths and we talked about their role as mentors, spiritual guides and counselors, but also another aspect of chaplaincy where they're counseling others, but nobody's counseling them," Pearsall said. "They could be giving a sermon to a group of soldiers in the morning and then doing their last rites at the end of the day. ... I found out many chaplains leave the service and, in some cases, stop going to church, synagogue or mosque."

Left to right: After Action host Stacy Pearsall, accompanied by Charlie, with Reverend Addison Burgess, Sr., Rabbi Julie Schwartz and Imam Khallid Shabazz, three military chaplains. (Des’ola Mecozzi Photography, SCETV)

The second season also discusses veterans discharged under the military's old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding homosexuality, who are now unable to receive VA benefits due to a dishonorable discharge, parenting during service, female veterans and the power of art in healing.

"I think what's so important about this show is, it provides a better understanding of what is typically unknown to the majority of Americans," Pearsall said. "I hope with this informative and educational show, it will start a dialogue, not only within communities, but within households and hopefully begin to bridge the gap and start the healing, or at least accelerate it in some cases."

"And I say this to everybody, that the loss of one life is immeasurable. And so by doing the show, if we could save one person from finishing their life, then it would have been worth all the effort."

Season 2 of "After Action" begins airing in May 2024. Check your local PBS listing for dates and times.

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