Travis Bell has been honorably serving the Home of the Airborne and Special Operation Forces without ever donning a military uniform.
That’s because Bell isn’t a Soldier, but a barber, who for 45 years has professionally been giving military haircuts to hundreds of thousands of servicemembers on Fort Bragg, ranking from privates to generals.
A native of the countryside of Lumberton, N.C., Bell’s upbringing on a farm consisted of him doing several jobs such as a painter, a mechanic to a plumber.
It wasn’t until around 1958, when he first became seriously interested in becoming a barber.
“At a young age, I enjoyed it,” said Bell, “my brother was a barber and I started to learn from him. I was able to use his tools, work with them and do a lot of practice with the eight other brothers in my Family…if you messed up what could you say? It can grow back,” he said as he laughed jokingly.
As Bell continued to perfect his craft, in 1967 he decided he would come to Fort Bragg after receiving a job offer from a friend from his church organization, also a barber, at the E-4 Club, now known as the NCO Club.
“I wanted to get out of the farm and I was able to be a barber under the grandfather clause back then,” he said, “that meant I was able to cut hair without a license since I was already cutting hair and received on-the-job training.”
After working at the E-4 Club for about three months, Bell was offered a position as a barber for the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters. He admitted that he declined the offer at first because he felt nervous of having to cut hair for commanding officers in the Army.
When offered a second time, he finally agreed to the offer and on the 4th of July weekend of 1967, Bell would be the barber from then on at the XVIII Abn. Corps barber shop.
Retired Army Col., Arthur “Bull” Simons, a Special Forces officer best known for leading the Son Tay raid, an attempted rescue of American prisoners of war from a North Vietnamese prison, would be the first “full-bird” colonel that Bell would have the privilege of giving a shave and a haircut.
Lt. Gen. Robert H. York, a former commanding general of XVIII Abn. Corps, would be the first three-star general that Bell had the privilege of cutting his hair. Since his time working on Fort Bragg, Bell has been through 21 XVIII Abn. Corps commanding generals during his career.
Bell said that over the last 45 years, he has seen a lot of changes across Fort Bragg, with the vast increase in population and building throughout the installation.
“I was here when they built the fence around Corps headquarters in 1998,” he said. “There are a lot more barbers than there was 45 years ago…it’s a big challenge now with a lot of competition.”
Bell states that his barber shop business has been the slowest its ever been now. With being used to cutting as much as 75 heads a day back in the prime era of the shop, business has decreased not only due to the fence around Corps headquarters, but also due to the recent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Regardless of the setbacks, Bell says that everybody is 100 percent welcome to come and get a haircut.
“I plan to cut hair until the good Lord calls me home and until I get too old that I can’t come up here anymore,” he said.
“I’m enjoying it better than I ever had in my life. I know a lot of people and a lot of friends. It’s a pleasure to wake up every morning, drive about 50 minutes back and forth to work and able to meet and talk with some of the greatest people from around the world.”
When asked about advice for future barbers out there in the world he said, “You got to love it; you got to want it. Learning to cut hair is a challenge. Some make it, some don’t. But, if you know you have the skills and talent, you stick with it.”
The XVIII Airborne Corps barber shop is open Monday thru Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Bell can be reached at 907-3706 or 827-5557.