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Encounters: Portraits of veterans helps one vet find her purpose

Jon Boggs wants to know if he's supposed to be smiling.

The veteran in the portrait session before him had asked the same thing. "Just relax," photographer Stacy Pearsall told her, and the woman's pinched shoulders fell loose.

Now Pearsall holds her Nikon a few feet in front of Boggs. He faces her from his backwards perch in a bar chair on a backdrop of white. He's puppyish, a 29-year-old college senior and Army vet, in dark-rimmed glasses and self-described dad sneakers. He's not used to the camera.

"You're doing just what you're supposed to be doing," Pearsall says. It's a line she repeats to her subjects as they cycle through this beige room at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's veterans center, where tables are pushed to the side.

She paces, adjusting the soft boxes that hearken back to school picture day. In a yellow plaid shirt embroidered with VETERANS PORTRAIT PROJECT, Pearsall swaps lenses swiftly.

With Boggs, Pearsall slips right into the fast-paced, boyish banter she knew so well in her years as a combat photographer with the Air Force.

"You just shut your piehole and be cute," she commands. "How old's your kid?"

"Two," Boggs says. "Do you want to see a picture? You want to see a picture."

"No, I don't."

"Yeah, you do."

"Is it a cat or a dog?" she jokes.

"It's my son," he says, laughing.

She asks about his arm tattoos. There's one for his platoon, the 10th Mountain Division. He has the letters Theta Beta Chi — for God, family, country — and one he calls Villainy and Virtue.

"It's supposed to stand for, like, the fight between good and evil," he says. "Do you want the honest answer? It was cover art to one of my favorite bands in high school."

Pearsall, in her late 30s, asks questions and waits for him to start answering before she clicks. Between wisecracks, the room gets quiet. Pearsall's service dog, a black lab named Charlie, naps in a chair. Murmurs leak from the next room, where student veterans are studying up on benefits.

Pearsall adjusts Boggs' arms so they're propped up, as if in prayer.

"I feel like a male model," he says, prompting some back-and-forth Zoolander quotes.

Pearsall swaps out one lens, clicks in another.

"Better," she says.

Pearsall sings a snippet of a Disney song.

"No? You don't know Cinderella?"

"It's been a while," he says.

"I feel like it hasn't and you're just holding back to save your masculinity."

Pearsall drags a studio light over him and asks about his grad school plans.

"This is probably a new record for the most pictures taken of me at once," he says.

The photos amass. She'll edit them down, send the best to Boggs in black and white. Maybe she'll display them, like she has with hundreds of others, in places like the Pentagon. These portraits have become Pearsall's purpose in the decade since she had to leave the Air Force.

She had enlisted in 1998, age 17. Her calling came as a rookie in the photo lab on Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. A man wearing a flight suit and a camera swaggered in, slapped down some film and said he needed it developed, fast. She thought, I want to be that.

That was an aerial combat photojournalist, the Air Force members who translate military operations into images that help Americans understand the reality of war and those fighting it.

In her long career, Pearsall captured raids and peacetime missions and the dizzying symmetry of Baghdad from a Black Hawk helicopter. She witnessed soldiers sharing silent grief for a fallen friend. She took some men and women's last living pictures.

She hadn't wanted to leave the military, but injuries forced her to. Adding to the distress was a sense that she was an oddity among the mostly male veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs. When an elderly man sat down next to her at an appointment, she wrote him off in frustration. Turns out he just wanted to tell his story. He'd helped liberate a World War II concentration camp.

In her embarrassment, an idea clicked.

She started bringing her camera to doctor's appointments. From there the portrait project grew, bringing her to stops like USF St. Petersburg.

In the same way that her service dog has allowed Pearsall to own her veteran identity, so has holding a camera and looking into the eyes of people who understand.

After Pearsall tells the first veteran to relax, Jacquita James lets down her shoulders. An Air Force veteran-turned-student, James is softspoken. But she takes advantage of a pause between snaps.

"Thank you for your service," James says, and Pearsall, who seemingly always knows what to say, is quiet.

Contact Claire McNeill at or (727) 893-8321.