Real Warriors: Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall

As a combat photographer, Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall received numerous physical injuries and experienced PTSD from the events she witnessed. With help from a friend, she found the help she needed.

[Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall] My name is Stacy Pearsall and I'm a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, retired. As a combat photographer, I could go from one mission with Special Forces and then the next day be on a civil affairs mission where we're opening a school. So my mission ran the gamut from heavy combat—the most extreme combat— to taking pictures of dead bodies in the morgue. Most Air Force see the war from 30,000 feet, not in your face. I saw people blown apart. I saw people without heads and mutilated bodies and the most horrific things you could ever imagine, and I had to take pictures of it. I can't erase those pictures and as long as those pictures exist in my memory, that won't go away. It's still very, very fresh—no matter how much time has distanced from that deployment to the next or until now. Before my first deployment, mental health was never even a thought. It was always physical and making sure that I was professionally prepared through my camera skills and physically prepared by running PT every day. On my first deployment in Baghdad, I was struck by an improvised explosive device while riding in a Humvee with no doors on. I injured my neck when I impacted my head into the driver's seat in front of me. At the time I didn't know it, but I was later diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. I went through physical therapy, but, the stress from the improvised explosive device and some other scenarios that I had witnessed kept me from sleeping at night, and I was so strung out— black bags under my eyes, just really cranky and tired, and irritable outbursts— and I didn't recognize what was happening. I went on a temporary duty to Washington, DC for a few weeks and met up with an old friend who was a "frog" in the Navy and a photographer during Vietnam, and he said, "Stacy, do you realize that you have some symptoms from post-traumatic stress disorder?" And I said, "No, I don't. I just have some problems sleeping. I can handle everything else." And he said, "Well, let me do this. I'm going to contact my team leader at my vet center, and then I'll have him contact the one in Charleston and they'll be in touch." And he assured me that it would remain anonymous from my active duty command. A few days later, I got a phone call from the Charleston vet center, and I started going and getting therapy from them. This whole set of pictures, I donated to the Charleston VA. >>[male offscreen] That's awesome. [SSgt. Pearsall] I think what's really great is these pictures give the veterans ownership of the place where they get care. It made me feel a little more at home knowing that I was surrounded by my brothers and sisters, you know what I mean? Eventually I went back to Iraq in 2007, and I felt like I had adequate coping skills from PTSD, but my deployment in 2007 was unlike anything I had ever seen in past combat deployments. Diyala Province was growing increasingly more violent, and we were losing a lot of soldiers—wounded and killed— and I think that had a real impact on my mental health. I thought that I could cope with that, but everybody around me seemed to be dying. [Master Sgt. (Ret.) Andy Dunaway] Stacy is really outgoing. She loves to go horseback riding and she loves photography. She's just a really outgoing person. After her 2007 deployment, I could really notice a difference in her mental stability just because she was going through all her injuries and PTSD from what she saw out there. And a lot of that you see every day because you're always looking at your photos. And she was having nightmares, so it was really hard for her to digest all that stuff. And I think finally seeing the counselors on base and then the VA, where she continues to this day, is really helping her cope with what happened out there. [SSgt. Pearsall] As part of my career now, I do a lot of outreach and mentoring in photography. I also am involved in many programs for rehabilitation for PTSD patients. And through photography or horses, I've used those tools to help others with PTSD. I think it takes real strength to seek help. I kept my mental health care a secret for so long. In a predominantly male unit, the last thing I wanted them to know was that I was having issues because they seemed to be coping fine. And it took that other person—a Vietnam era person— to grab my hand and say, "Here's the vet center." And I started to realize that I wasn't the only one suffering from post-traumatic stress or battle fatigue or all the other names that they have for it. And once I started opening up to my colleagues, that one little crack opened the floodgates, and then I had a ton of people coming to me about "Well, where did you go? What should I do? What are the symptoms? How can I get help?" And I found that by sharing my story or my experiences, I might be able to help others deal with theirs. It's not necessarily about who we were, but it's who we are now and how can we learn from that experience, get the help we need, and move on with our lives. As a combat photographer, it's wonderful to recall the camaraderie that you felt with your brothers in arms, and in other ways it's also a curse. I'm eternally tied to the photographs that I made and those soldiers who were in those photographs. And if I get one person to get help if they're having issues, then I feel like I've been successful.
Posted on BrainLine May 30, 2013.

Used with permission from Real Warriors, Real Battles, part of the Real Warriors Campaign, an initiative launched by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.