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Combat photographers offer glimpse into military life at Veterans Day assembly

11/15/2012
In a span of less than four months in Diyala province, Pearsall experienced the deaths of about 60 servicemen and servicewomen. Four years after her military career was forced to an abrupt end by a disabling combat injury, she continues to grapple with the physical and emotional scars of war.
 
The worst part of war isn't in those moments spent dodging fire with 85 pounds of combat and camera gear weighing you down, Pearsall told students at the Upper School's annual Veterans Day assembly, held Nov. 15.
 
"The moments after combat are the worst. ... When you're in combat, you're in survival mode. You're compartmentalizing," said Pearsall, one of just two women to have earned the National Press Photographers Association's Military Photographer of the Year award, and the only woman to have won it twice. 
 
After the last bullet is fired, however, there's time to reflect on what was only narrowly avoided — and in the worst of cases, what wasn't.
 
"When I joined the military, I was 17 and had a bright future ahead of me," Pearsall recalled thinking after her devastating injury. "And then I'm lying in a hospital bed at 28 and have no future as a combat photographer."
 
Upper School English teacher Jordan Adair invited Pearsall to visit DA after seeing a PBS Newshour piece on her last spring, he said. He has invited veterans, from reservists to Tuskegee Airmen, to address Upper School students during the week of Veterans Day for the last six years.
 
Pearsall and her husband, fellow retired combat photographer Andy Dunaway, made a two-day visit to the Upper School, during which they participated in discussions with photography students and in two history classes, in addition to the schoolwide assembly and discussions with Adair's classes. While in the Triangle, the couple also participated in roundtable discussions at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill, and they planned to visit the Durham VA Hospital to take photos for Pearsall's portrait collection, The Veterans Portrait Project
 
The couple lean on each other for support as they travel the country sharing their experiences and photographing veterans for the project. It's through the portrait project, which took root when she met Vietnam War vets while receiving treatment for her injuries at a Veterans Affairs hospital, that she began the process of emotional healing, she said.
 
She now works as a successful commercial photographer and is owner and director of the Charleston Center for Photography. She and Dunaway speak three or four times a month to groups like those gathered at DA. It's important to Pearsall — who in October released Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera, a book of her combat photos and essays — to share her story and those of the men and women whose lives she documented during her time with the elite "Combat Camera" unit.
 
During the hour-long assembly, she showed DA students dozens of photos documenting the lives of servicemen and servicewomen — from moments of levity, like an impromptu Air Force-Army football game, to photos of severely injured men and women, illustrating war's harsh reality.
 
After the assembly, in an informal discussion with students in Adair's Literary and Artistic Response to War class, Pearsall's voice cracked as she recalled witnessing Belser's fatal injury.
 
"The day before Donnie died, he was singing 'Happy Birthday' to his son," she said. "Every year, his son will associate his birthday with his father's death. We would never know that unless I bring Donnie to life through my photos."

Pearsall was featured on the front page of the New York Times' Jan. 25, 2013, issue; read the story at http://nyti.ms/Twwa6l