GOOSE CREEK, S.C. -- As Stacy Pearsall ran in the pre-dawn darkness of a chilly morning in Goose Creek, S.C., she listened to music blaring on her iPod. She liked working out alone while most people still slept. But 15 minutes into her jog, joy turned to terror.
She caught a white blur out of the corner of her left eye. Startled, she turned to face it.
A monster of a dog, all teeth and claws and a mass of fur, lunged at her. Its paws packed a wallop as they hit her in the stomach. Then the angry beast sank its teeth into her chest, just above her right breast. He ripped down hard, tearing flesh and tackling the slender, 5-foot-7 woman to the ground.
Pearsall heard a chilling noise her panicked mind didn't recognize. It was guttural, primal.
With sudden horror, she realized the sound was coming from her. She'd become prey, and she was screaming for her life.
Former active duty Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, a veteran combat photographer and decorated war hero, suffered wounds from two separate roadside bomb explosions in Iraq, one in 2003 and another in 2007. She also witnessed her humvee gunner mortally wounded from a sniper's bullet. She even survived an ambush that nearly wiped out her Stryker armored vehicle unit. But none of the horrors of war prepared her for a dark Dec. 18 at 5:30 a.m. when a neighbor's 100-pound chow-husky mix brutally attacked her.
"I didn't see him coming until it was too late," she said. "And it was the most frightening experience of my life."
Pearsall reacted like a gazelle in the jaws of a lion -- with earsplitting shrieks.
"At least in war, you know the enemy is out there, so you're on high alert," she said. "But in this case, I was totally caught off guard. One minute I'm out for a relaxing jog, listening to music; the next instant I'm being attacked by Cujo."
By the time she caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye, the ferocious canine had already launched himself into the air like a missile.
"I think he was going for my throat, but he sank his teeth into my chest instead," Pearsall said.
After ripping her flesh to drag her to the ground, the dog released its grip on her chest and savaged her right wrist. When Pearsall fought back, wildly swinging her left arm, the dog let go of the wrist and started biting her repeatedly on her left forearm.
She kept her arms up to protect her face, neck and head. About 90 seconds into the attack, a neighbor who heard her screams came outside to help.
"What's going on?" he hollered.
His voice halted the dog's onslaught.
The canine sat down about 10 feet away from Pearsall, his menacing stare daring her to move.
She didn't oblige.
"I didn't move a muscle," she said.
She yelled at the neighbor to stay back for fear that the dog would attack him.
The dog's owner, who also heard the commotion, finally came out of her house. She collared the animal, locked it in her car and called police.
Pearsall gathered herself gingerly. She felt a warm sensation flowing from her chest and arm and wondered if it was the dog's slobber or her blood. Even in her state of shock, it didn't take long to figure out that she was bleeding.
She walked to her home, just a few doors down. Police arrived and called an ambulance. Meanwhile, Pearsall called her husband.
Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway, a photojournalist at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., had gone into work early that morning to prepare for a 22-ship flight of C-17 Globemaster III cargo/troop aircraft. He'd lead a team of 10 photographers on this unique mission.
When his wife called, he thought she said a car had hit her.
He moved to a room where the reception on his cell phone was better.
"Don't worry; I'm OK," Pearsall told him. "I was attacked by a dog, and they're taking me to the hospital in an ambulance. But I'll be fine. Please go on the flight."
"But there was no way I was going on any flight when my wife's just been attacked by a dog and is being taken by ambulance to the emergency room," Dunaway said.
Also, at that point, Pearsall's adrenaline still masked the agony that was soon to come. About halfway to the hospital, a stabbing pain made its unheralded, excruciating debut.
"I wanted medication to make the hurt go away," she said.
When Dunaway made it to the hospital, he was nearly overcome with emotion at the sight of his wife lying there suffering, covered in her own blood. He felt a sense of helplessness.
To cope with the situation and remain calm for her, he did what came naturally for both he and his wife: He began taking photos while the doctor worked on her.
Pearsall was treated at Trident Regional Medical Center and released nearly six hours later, though her injuries caused her to be laid up for two more days at home. After the wounds were cleaned, she received one stitch in her chest and another in her left forearm. She said doctors told her they don't like to close dog bite wounds because they tend to get infected from bacteria found in the dog's mouth. Thankfully, the dog was up to date on its rabies vaccination, she said.
Latoya Combs, the dog's owner, surrendered her pet, which was euthanized later that same day by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, according to Goose Creek police.
Combs told police the dog got loose the night before and ran into the woods behind her backyard. She said she tried to find the dog but was unsuccessful.
Pearsall lamented that the dog had to be put to sleep.
"I'm a real animal lover," said the 29-year-old, who owns two dogs of her own, as well as a horse. "He was just doing what came naturally -- protecting his owner's property."
Dunaway said he wishes pet owners would be more responsible.
"It was hard to see Stacy in that condition," he said. "But it could have been much worse. If the bites were just a little deeper, she could have bled to death. Or can you imagine what that dog would have done to a little kid waiting for a school bus?"
Ironically, Pearsall's nightmarish jog began on the advice of her doctor. After medically retiring from the Air Force in August with neck and spinal injuries received in combat, her physical activities had been limited.
"I'm afraid to run in the dark now," said Pearsall, who keeps busy as the owner and director of the Charleston Center for Photography. "But for those who do run or walk in the dark, I don't recommend listening to music. That only leaves your eyes to alert you to danger, and they are already limited because of a low-light, low-visibility situation."
She also recommended people carry a cell phone and stay alert and aware of their surroundings, even in a seemingly non-threatening environment.
"I was totally unprepared for this and reacted instinctively instead of calmly," she said. "I was prey."