Editor’s note: Stacy Pearsall is a former Air Force combat photographer. She is featured in the HLN Independence Day special, “Stories of Courage: Soldiers' Songs.” The special features veterans and their families participating in a program called "SongwritingWith: Soldiers," which aims to turn painful memories into healing energy through music. Tune in for this special presentation at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, July 4.
“Beauty and the colors, the light and the shadows, I took the pictures of lives in battle,” sang Darden Smith as he gazed at me through tear-soaked eyes, gently strumming his guitar only hours after sitting down to write a song with me. Upon arriving at the Song Writing with Soldiers Retreat, I was quietly skeptical at the idea of opening up to perfect strangers about my combat experiences, especially in light of the fact that I’d barely revealed such intimate details to my own husband and fellow combat photographer, Andy Dunaway.
During the introductory dinner, I stayed relatively to myself, standing near an exit and giving caged one-word answers. The next morning at breakfast, the man behind Song Writing with Soldiers pulled up a chair next to me and just started chatting. I was taken off my guard. He had no guitar, no intimidating questions, and concentrated more on listening than talking. I shared some old military photos of my family, then some of me in combat and eventually pictures I’d taken in war. From there, it was as if the floodgate holding back my emotions had been opened and I couldn’t contain the torrent.
I recounted stories of being struck by improvised explosive devices, bullets whizzing past my head in firefights, treating wounded soldiers, witnessing friends die and what it was like to photograph it all in the process. I explained to Smith that God only challenges those he believes can rise to the challenge. And that I believed I was put on this Earth for a purpose; to take soldiers’ last living pictures. The idea that I could immortalize their heroism, strength and sacrifice was what got me through my time in combat. Most importantly, to be able to provide their families with those images gave me comfort.
The song we co-wrote with the legendary artist Radney Foster is titled "God Challenged Me." It poetically states all of the feelings I’d kept regarding my job as a combat photographer in the military. The process of writing the song gave me new perspective, it opened me up, and lifted my spirits. I wanted others to experience the same feeling of liberation that’d occurred within me, so I began to volunteer my services as a photographer to Song Writing with Soldiers. I even recruited my husband and his former combat buddy, videographer James Monk, to help me document the emotional journey attendees underwent.
You can see a visible transformation in their posture and facial expression from when they first arrive, during the songwriting session and after the song is written. It’s utterly amazing. And like me, most have no musical ability to start with. It’s all about sharing, acknowledging and letting go in a safe place amongst people who are ready listeners.