As the sky turns ominous, U.S. Army Sgt. Kyle Ellison searches the roof of a locals house for weapons during an assault against anti-Iraqi forces in Buhriz, Iraq, on April 11, 2007.
There’s a good reason why I do what I do. I’m living proof there’s truth in the old cliché “when one door closes another opens.” Although I didn’t always identify as a portrait photographer, I’ve been traversing the United States taking portraits of veterans for the past several years. It’s quite a change from my time as an Air Force combat photojournalist, days when shooter was a double entendre.
I was a uniformed combatant, and a formally trained photojournalist, armed with two weapons—a gun and a camera. My job was to document stories in countries across the globe, get the story objectively, download the imagery, and caption and transmit the images back to the U.S. in a timely manner. From there, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and the President used my photographs for internal purposes. In some instances, my work was pushed on the wire and picked up by media outlets nationwide. You may recognize my pseudonym byline, DoD Imagery.
My jump from combat photographer to portrait journalist isn’t so far afield if you know how it came about. It was my time in war that brought me to this point. Humor me. Here’s the abbreviated version.
In The Combat Zone
It was nearly 10 years ago; the Surge in Iraq was well underway, and this was my umpteenth operation in my ninth year of military service. We were in an Iraqi house we’d appropriated and it was pitch-dark, so I prepped for the predawn patrol by the dim glow of my tiny red LED keychain flashlight, which I had clutched between my teeth. I began my morning ablutions with a cold moist baby wipe that sent shivers through my body from toe to sternum. The desert nights were frigid in the winter, and I couldn’t get warm. Every layer of my clothes was soaked through with sweat from soaring desert temps the day before. On a scale of one-to-dead, this unpleasantness barley registered.
“Are you ready, Sgt. Pearsall?” asked the squad leader while picking up his rifle and slinging it across his chest. As the only woman on the operation, I was keenly aware that my every move was being examined. I worked very hard to build up my “tough-girl wall,” and I’d since grown accustomed to the undercurrent of sexual innuendo, profuse profanity and incessant browbeating that went along with infantry cohabitation. I never demanded respect from anyone, either—I earned it.
I could feel the squad leader’s eyes on me, so I yelled, “Just a sec,” without looking up. I grabbed my lens from my pile of gear and rotated it into place on my well-battered Nikon camera. It seated with a satisfying click.
I lifted my mud-caked, bloodstained shooter’s vest, simultaneously slapping the excess sand off with my free hand, and began my ritualistic inventory. I groped blindly through the pockets: batteries, lenses, second camera body, CompactFlash cards, notepad, pen—all there. I belted my M9 pistol drop holster and snapped the fasteners tightly around my waist and right thigh.
I wore a sidearm everywhere at all times in case things got really bad and, up to that point, I’d only drawn my weapon a handful of times. I always felt my primary focus should be taking pictures—my gun was just an unwanted distraction. That didn’t deter people from trying to kill me. I just wouldn’t see it coming.
I hoisted my sweat-stained body armor on, sealing it tightly. My breasts monopolized a lot of space inside the armor that was built for a man. I could scarcely breath. I could feel the hot spots where the armor rubbed me raw, and a painful burn where the salt from my sweaty shirt made contact.
Searching for any left-behind items, I flipped up last night’s bed, which happened to be a luxurious three-inch pad of foam that was approximately three feet wide by six feet long. Every Iraqi house had stacks of them, and they created an ideal buffer between you and the cold floor. I looked up and proclaimed, “Good to go,” with an indiscernible grin to the waiting squad leader. Another day in paradise begins. I didn’t remember yesterday ending.