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'In every uniform is a human being': Air Force vet aims to take portraits of veterans in all 50 states

Army veteran Michelle Hayes, who served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, befriends photographer Stacy Pearsall's service dog Charlie during a Veterans Portrait Project photo shoot.

VETERANS PORTRAIT PROJECT BY STACY PEARSALL

By DOUG MACCASH | NOLA Media Group | Published: July 26, 2019

NEW ORLEANS (Tribune News Service) — Great photographers capture things we can't see, finding ways to show their subjects' feelings and histories.

By Veterans Day 2019, former combat photographer Stacy Pearsall will have traveled to all 50 states, snapping stark black and white portraits of more than 7,500 military veterans. Despite the care she takes composing each shot, correcting the lighting and cajoling her subjects to engage with the camera, the photos aren’t the main thing. The main thing is the chance to connect.

According to the retired Air Force Staff Sergeant, her Veterans Portrait Project began as a sort of self-styled therapy as she recovered from a neck injury and head trauma that resulted from a roadside bomb blast in Iraq in 2007. She said it remains a balm for the physical and emotional aftermath of her experience.

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On July 23, Pearsall set up her mobile photo studio in the enormous Boeing Center atrium at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. Antique bombers and fighter planes hung from the high ceiling above her, as former soldiers, sailors and Marines took turns in front of her lens. Aside from the decorated baseball caps and T-shirts that commemorated their units and theaters of operation, the veterans looked just like anyone else. Their experiences and sacrifices were invisible.

But as Pearsall posed them and asked questions about their pasts, the significance of their service shone.

“Combat veterans tend to withhold a lot from others,” Pearsall said. “Their experiences have injured them and they don’t want to project that injury on others.”

Pearsall suspects that if she weren’t a combat veteran herself, some of the vets might be more reluctant to participate in the photo process or to share their stories. And it doesn’t hurt that her service dog Charlie lay nonchalantly on the photo set, exuding an attentive but utterly relaxed vibe.

It’s difficult to describe the “sights, sounds, smells, memories and feelings of unworthiness” that some combat veterans carry with them, Pearsall said. They wonder “why do you want to know my story?”

Pearsall said that their experiences validate her emotions, and she hopes her photography validates theirs. She said her exchanges with the vets are “invaluable” and her photos are the “byproduct.”

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Vietnam War veteran Francisco Lopez posed seated on a stool, with his hands perched atop his cane. He smiled broadly as he gazed through his glasses. Lopez, 72, said he was born in Honduras but immigrated to the U.S. in 1961. By 1968, he said, he was an Army combat medic giving first aid to fellow soldiers during the intense fighting of the Tet Offensive. He said he earned a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound and a Bronze Star for heroism.

As Pearsall, who was the recipient of the Bronze Star and Air Force Commendation Medal with Valor, arranged to photograph Lopez, she asked if he knew how many wounded men he may have helped. He said there were too many to remember. Lopez told Pearsall that he thought he would be appalled by blood, but when the fighting began he was quickly hardened to it.

“I was in combat for 10 months,” he said in a subsequent telephone conversation. “In a while, all your emotions are gone. You don’t complain, your friends die and you don’t feel anything. Back in civilian life, those emotions are still pretty low.”

Lopez, who lives in Uptown New Orleans, said that the fact Pearsall had combat experience really didn’t matter to him. He would have happily posed for a commemorative portrait anyway. But he also said that there are unspoken bonds between those who have been under fire. He and an old friend who also served in the Vietnam War rarely mention their combat histories, but they always know that deep down they have something important in common, he said.

Lopez said he plans to present Pearsall’s portrait of him to his granddaughter. Asked how it felt to be ceremoniously photographed as part of Pearsall’s project, Lopez said it made him feel a bit “grandiose.” But it also affirmed his pride.

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The day after her New Orleans photo shoot, Pearsall traveled to Arkansas to engage in more exchanges with vets.

“People think veterans are statuesque, unbreakable and impenetrable,” she said in a telephone conversation as she waited for her plane to depart. “I want people to realize that in every uniform is a human being with a heart and a soul, people they love, history and baggage. I want every veteran to know they’re thanked.”

©2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans
Visit NOLA Media Group, New Orleans at www.nola.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Adolf Wesselhoeft, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, poses as part of the Veterans Portrait Project.
VETERANS PORTRAIT PROJECT BY STACY PEARSALL

Francisco Lopez, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, poses for the Veterans Portrait Project.
VETERANS PORTRAIT PROJECT BY STACY PEARSALL

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