MAY 29, 2015, GREAT LAKES, Ill. (NNS) – Though recruits face many uncertainties upon first arriving to Recruit Training Command, the Navy’s only boot camp, there’s one thing of which the males can be certain: They will get their heads shaved.
Having the honor of exposing their scalps during this long-standing military rite are six Navy Exchange barbers with 85 years of combined RTC experience among them. Armed with clippers and scissors, the barbers each shave, trim and crop an average of 75 to 100 recruits on an average day, and that number easily climbs to 150+ on busy days.
“It is repetitive, but there is a tad bit of creativity to the haircuts due to the fact that we cut different ethnic types of hair that create some challenge,” said Alvin Tharbs, who has been shaving heads at RTC for 21 years. “And no matter what kind of day we might have, we really want to come here and do our best and make the recruits feel welcome.”
In addition to Tharbs, the barbers – who all previously worked as hair stylists in the civilian world -Hyong Davis has been at RTC the longest at 24 years; Pam Kiesgen, 20 years; Brenda Ricker, 15 years; Ricardo Nicholas, five years; and the newest member of the crew, Eren Gonzalez began four months ago.
Within 12 hours of their arrival, the recruits will be lined up outside the barber shop located in the Golden Thirteen in-processing building. All male recruits receive the same initial cut regardless if they already had their head shaved prior to arriving as regulations state their hair be shaved to an eighth-inch.
“That initial haircut is to get everyone on the same level; the same playing field. We’re a team and need to look uniform all the way around,” said Tharbs.
The recruits will see the barbers twice more before graduation as they receive another haircut midway through training and one right before graduation at which point they are allowed to have the top, sides and back all neatly trimmed.
As of January, female recruits no longer are required to have their hair cut. Previously, RTC required all females with long hair to cut it to the lower edge of the uniform collar. Now, female Sailors will have the ability to choose any hairstyle that meets uniform regulations and are taught how to properly wear their hair in a bun. Females requesting a haircut may still receive one.
“Previously, females didn’t have a choice about getting their hair cut and there were a lot of tears,” said Tharbs. “The crying has been greatly eliminated because now they have a choice. Those who choose to get their hair cut are volunteering to do so – they’re like warriors!”
The average time recruits spend in the chair is only about 3 minutes, and it’s during those few minutes that the barbers make it a point to put them at ease by engaging them in conversation.
“I’m a talker – I find out more about these kids than their parents probably know as they share all kinds of information,” said Kiesgen. “We want them to know that when they see us, they can relax if only for a moment, especially since they’ve been up all night since arriving.”
Gonzalez, who comes from a military family and has always worked near bases as a hair stylist, finds the pace at RTC much faster and rewarding.
“They deserve to be treated kindly and while there’s not a lot of time we can spend on your hair, we will treat you with decency and respect with the few minutes you’re in our chairs,” said Gonzalez. “Many recruits struggle when they first join and they share with me why they join. Even though it’s only a few minutes we’re with them, we learn a lot.”
Nicolas explains how he listens to the recruits describe their struggles with training and that offers him the opportunity to get them motivated in the few minutes they sit with him.
“I feel like I’m part of this whole operation and somehow, someway, the people that need me always wind up in my chair or the chair next to me or because the other barbers know I’m the motivational guy, they’ll send a certain recruit to me,” said Nicolas. “I have small talk with them to help them find purpose when somewhere along the way they lost his or her purpose of why they came here, and I try to remind them what they came here for and that they are able and capable of getting the job done.”
In addition to the recruits’ initial and follow-up haircuts, RTC personnel also come in for regular haircuts. The barbers work 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 five days a week and with a combined average of 700 to 900 haircuts a day, they never tire of their jobs.
“If you put me in isolation, I’ll die in a day. You put me around people, I’ll live forever. I love being around a large body of people and I feel like this is the job for me,” said Nicholas. “There’s always someone in need of something, maybe a conversation or little encouragement and I’m always trying to make myself available to be there with them.”
Although their time is short with the recruits, each barber feels honored to play a role in the boot camp experience.
“Seeing the recruits from when they first get here until they graduate gives me pride as I feel that I had a little hands-on in helping the Navy,” said Kiesgen.