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'In every uniform is a human being' — an Air Force vet is on a mission to take portraits of 7,500 veterans in all 50 states
By Veterans' Day this November, 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, for her, is the chance to connect with fellow veterans.
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.
Earlier this month, Pearsall set up her mobile photo studio in the enormous Boeing Center atrium at the National 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."
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.
There were too many to remember, he said.
Lopez told Pearsall that he thought he would be appalled by blood, but when the fighting began he quickly became hardened to it.
"I was in combat for 10 months," he said in an interview after the shoot. "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 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, Lopez said.
Lopez 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, he said it made him feel a bit "grandiose." But it also affirmed his pride.
The day after her New Orleans photo shoot, Pearsall traveled to Arkansas to engage in more exchanges with veterans. "People think veterans are statuesque, unbreakable and impenetrable," she said over the phone 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. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Five people have been indicted in federal court in the Western District of Texas on charges of participating in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from benefits reserved for military members, U.S. Department of Justice officials said Wednesday.
As the military services each roll out new policies regarding hemp-derived products like cannabidiol, or CBD, the Defense Department is not mincing words.
"It's completely forbidden for use by any service member in any of the services at this point of time," said Patricia Deuster, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
The warning, along with the policies issued recently by the Air Force, Coast Guard and Department of the Navy, comes as CBD is becoming increasingly ubiquitous across the country in many forms, from coffee additives and vaping liquids to tinctures, candies and other foods, carrying promises of health benefits ranging from pain and anxiety relief to sleeping aids and inflammation reduction.
The Navy has fired five senior leaders so far in August – and the month isn't even over.
While the sea service is famous for instilling in officers that they are responsible for any wrongdoing by their sailors – whether they are aware of the infractions or not – the recent rash of firings is a lot, even for the Navy.
A Navy spokesman said there is no connection between any of the five officers relieved of command, adding that each relief is looked at separately.
'We are a people organization' — Army leaders push renewed focus on soldiers amid rise in sexual assaults and suicides
After months of focusing on modernization priorities, Army leadership plans to tackle persisting personnel issues in the coming years.
Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Tuesday at an event with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that what people can to hear service leadership "talk a lot about ... our people. Investing in our people, so that they can reach their potential. ... We are a people organization."
Two U.S. military service members were killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday, the Resolute Support mission announced in a press release.
Their identities are being withheld pending notification of next of kin, the command added.
A total of 16 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan so far in 2019. Fourteen of those service members have died in combat including two service members killed in an apparent insider attack on July 29.
Two U.S. troops in Afghanistan have been killed in non-combat incidents and a sailor from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was declared dead after falling overboard while the ship was supporting operations in Afghanistan.
At least two defense contractors have also been killed in Afghanistan. One was a Navy veteran and the other had served in the Army.