In the waiting room, an older veteran seated beside her engaged her in conversation. “He told me about surviving Normandy and liberating a concentration camp,” she said. His stories managed to pull her up from her well of misery.
“I realized that others at the VA had so many important stories,” she said. “I realized that I didn’t need to be in a uniform to serve my community.”
Instead, she could do it through taking their pictures. The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C., where she lives, let her set up a small studio in the waiting room and she began taking pictures of veterans who came through and were interested in sitting for a portrait. In the past decade, she has expanded to about 7,500 veterans in 29 states, a sprawling, ongoing undertaking called the Veterans Portrait Project.
A selection of her portraits of female veterans, “Shooter: Combat From Behind the Camera,” opened this weekend at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Pearsall was there Saturday and Sunday, shooting portraits of veterans who had signed up to be photographed.
For Pearsall, now 38, it is the culmination of a journey that took her from feeling invisible to feeling connected to a multigenerational network of veterans throughout the nation.
Because of her gender and age, she often felt ignored when trying to navigate the system to get help with her combat injuries.
“Young women like myself are very much an anomaly in the VA,” Pearsall said. “A lot of people would ask if I was part of the hospital staff.”
In one instance, when the Red Cross had put out free sodas and cookies for patients and she reached for one: “My hand was slapped away — that was only for vets,” she said. “I am not what people associated in their mind’s eye when they think of a veteran.”
In photographing veterans around the country, Pearsall hopes to illustrate how diverse the community is. Not only does she take their pictures, but she also asks for their stories.
Their journeys are not the same as hers, but the opportunity to share them creates a kind of kinship. “One’s combat experience, everyone handles it differently,” she said. “What I want to know is how their service impacted them. Having a combat history of my own, I know how to get them to that point.”
The portraits live on a website that is constantly being updated (Pearsall plans to eventually visit all 50 states). Around 9 in 10 are of men, reflecting the disproportionate portion of men in the military. But the 21 portraits on display at the Women’s Memorial are of women whose service range from the 1960s to the present.
They include a photo of Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate Jody Sloane posing in front of her Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a picture of Army Lt. Col. Sue Cantu and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Teresa L. Rolfe-Cantu, who met while deployed in Afghanistan and later married.
One of the subjects, Shari Strobel of Derwood, Md., enlisted in the Marines as soon as she turned 18, as the Vietnam War was winding down. Serving at Quantico, she faced skepticism from a superior.
“Times were different,” she said. “He did not believe that women belonged in the corps. I did my job and then I went beyond. It’s the old adage, that women have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” Eventually, she said, his skepticism faded and he complimented her when she got promoted.
Now when Strobel, 62, sees a woman in uniform, it’s a good feeling. “Hopefully, I was a poke in the eye that showed that women could serve, and hopefully, I made it a little easier for the women that came behind me.”
The women’s military memorial, which was dedicated in 1997 and includes indoor exhibits, attracts 150,000 visitors a year. Jane Newman, who served with the Army Nurse Corps from 1968 to 1994 in Japan, Italy, Germany and the United States, said having her portrait included in the exhibit has particular resonance because she served as a docent there for several years and has seen what it means to female veterans.
“Having a grandmother show her grandson the pictures of her in uniform during World War II or Korea — they’re there and they’re so proud that their story is being told,” said Newman, who lives in Great Falls. Sitting for a portrait with Pearsall meant “a lot more than just going to have your picture taken,” she added. “I see how this projects what the military is, the diversity of the military.”
Jan Edmunds, a retired Army major general who is chair of the memorial’s board, said it hopes to be able to start hosting more temporary exhibitions such as Pearsall’s, which was funded by a grant from the Fluor Military Support Coalition.
Edmunds said many female veterans report that, like Pearsall, they don’t feel seen.
“We want to raise the level of awareness to when we say ‘veteran,’ we think of more than what people typically think of,” she said.
Pearsall, who flew into Washington last week with her service dog, Charlie, said she hopes her own story will help inspire veterans who are having a hard time.
“I went from being told I couldn’t be a photographer anymore to being a Nikon ambassador and photographing 7,500 people in the last 10 years,” she said. “I try to let veterans know that there’s more to life than what we’re told we can have.”