CNN Photos

‘Every bit a woman, every bit a veteran’

Retired Air Force photographer Stacy Pearsall was sitting in a Veterans Affairs hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2008, waiting to see a doctor, when an older gentleman asked if she was accompanying her grandfather to an appointment.

No, she said, I'm actually a veteran.

As the two traded stories, inspiration struck Pearsall, an award-winning combat photographer who medically retired from active duty after multiple injuries sustained in Iraq. She began bringing her camera to medical appointments so she could photograph veterans in waiting rooms.

Her photographs grew into the Veterans Portrait Project, an ongoing photo series that brings Pearsall across the country, averaging three to four cities in a week.

Along the way, she realized she was capturing the changing faces of the military – and many of them were women.

"It's my way of thanking them for their service and honoring them for what they did for our country," said Pearsall, who has traced her military heritage back to the Revolutionary War.

"Having the opportunity to share veterans' stories in some way helps people understand what the modern-day veteran looks like," she said. "You never know who you're standing next to in the grocery store. You may not know he was a war hero in Korea or Vietnam, or a girl who stepped up in a predominantly male environment in Iraq."

As a military photographer who visited more than 40 countries during her service, Pearsall has experienced the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated environment: earning the trust of the unit to which she was assigned; having her period during combat; not being able to pee standing up out in the field.

She viewed those challenges as blessings that made her stronger. She stepped up in supporting roles, carrying weapons, filling sandbags, replenishing ammunition. She also helped by being the only one who could search other women in Arabic countries.

"None of that was in my job description,” Pearsall said. “But as a person in the moment, I wasn't just going to sit there and watch.

“I wasn’t out there to change their opinion about women in combat. I was there to serve. I never demanded respect based on rank. I asked them to allow me to earn it."

In calmer moments, Pearsall was a sounding board for troops who were dealing with loss on the battlefield or “Dear John” letters from home.

"Women can also bring that type of sensitivity to the battlefield," she said. "I wasn't in their unit, I wasn’t a guy. I had a lot of things that allowed me to … someone they could turn to."

Pearsall hopes the Veterans Portrait Project helps correct misperceptions about the value women can bring to all branches of the military, whether they're in combat, logistics or the mess hall. After all, each person on the front line requires 30 more to play supporting roles, she said.

"Each role in the military has significance, or we wouldn't be doing it," she said.

"Women have a lot to bring to the table. We're smart, educated and tough - very tough," she said, laughing. "Military women are very tough."

The women in her portrait series embody all those qualities. The ones that stand out most, though, are those who balance their gender identity with the pressure to fit in, remaining "every bit a woman but every bit a veteran at the same time," Pearsall said.

"It's easy as a woman serving in the military to lose identity because you don’t want anybody to harp on the fact that you're a woman," she said.

"At some point, when you get to know the ways of the world in the military, you can either lose it or a find happy balance: be a mother, a wife and still be a trained killer."

- Emanuella Grinberg, CNN