Army barber’s 57 year legacy with the Airborne leads to haircutting hall of fame 

Travis Bell has been a barber at Fort Liberty, North Carolina for 57 years in a one-man shop inside the XVIII Airborne Corps’ sprawling headquarters building. He’s cut the hair of every kind of soldier, from privates to four-star generals, from paratroopers who jumped on D-Day to Medal of Honor winners. But this week the Army said he’ll be getting a reward of his very own. 

In September Bell will be inducted into the National Barber Museum’s Hall of Fame

The museum recognizes barbers who have made lasting impacts on the communities they serve. For Bell, that’s the soldiers who have served in the XVIII Airborne Corps over the last half century. Bell told Task & Purpose that he plans to retire after his award ceremony. Bell said he hates that he has to move on from the best job he’s ever had but at 84 years old, his body can’t work like it used to.

“If you plant a farm in the spring, it ends in the fall,” Bell said. “Everything comes to an end.”

But he said they’re all the same. He gave his first senior commander haircut to Lt. Gen. Robert H. York, who led the XVIII Airborne Corps in 1967, and since squared away the cuts of well known four-star generals like David Rodriguez, Eric Shinseki, Henry Shelton and Stanley McChrystal. Pictures of all of them adorn the wall of his small shop, along with current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who, Bell said, was not much of a talker. 

Bell has also had countless war heroes pass through his chair, including Arthur “Bull” Simons. Simons was a legendary Special Forces officer who led the raid on the Son Tay prison camp in Vietnam. Simons, Bell said, was his first “full-bird” colonel to get a shave and haircut.

In a 2017 interview with an on-base newspaper, Bell estimated he had cut the hair of at least 35 four-star generals and 23 Corps commanders.

As a barber and religious man, Bell also often lends a listening ear to his clients. Sometimes they just need to talk to someone, he said. 

One time, Bell prayed with a Colonel who was in his chair and told Bell about his prostate cancer diagnosis. A few months later, the soldier returned to tell Bell that the cancer was gone. 

“He still comes in here and it’s still gone,” Bell said.

From the farm to headquarters

Bell grew up on a farm in Lumberton, North Carolina, one of 11 children including nine boys.

“We went to school two days a week and worked three, or went to school three days a week and worked two. Things were very different back then,” Bell told the Army.

In every family, Bell said, someone was in charge of cutting everyone’s hair. For Bell, it was his oldest brother, who also passed along the craft of cutting hair. 

“I prayed and asked God, I said, ‘God, I want to be a barber. I don’t have the money. I don’t have the education.’ I couldn’t pass the test because I didn’t have education, but I did love God, so I kept on,” Bell said. 

One Sunday, a friend from Bell’s church who was also a barber at then-Ft. Bragg’s E-4 Club, now known as the NCO Club, asked him if he wanted a job. After a few months at the club, Bell was offered a position in a small shop inside the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters. At first, Bell was intimidated by the idea of cutting the hair of some of the highest-ranking leaders in the military. 

“That’s one thing I was afraid of. I thought a general or sergeant major would just chew you out,” Bell said. But he soon learned that one thing soldiers value over rank is a good haircut. 

“They ain’t gonna chew you out unless you mess up or something. But I got along good with them,” he said. “They’ve all treated me real nice.”

Bell has been through dozens of XVIII Airborne Corps commanding generals over the course of his career. He’s attended command change ceremonies, funerals and retirement parties. 

Bell’s professional barber career began in the 1950’s when haircuts cost only 40 cents. By the time he came to the North Carolina base in 1967, the price of a haircut jumped to 90 cents a head. Now, he charges around $13 for a cut. 

Bell said that the type of haircuts have changed over time from traditional high-and-tight cuts to fades. 

“Back then, everybody wore the same type of haircut,” Bell said. “I’m not that good with a fade. It’s slower and it costs more. It takes longer.”

At one point, Bell said he was averaging about 80 heads a day. But now with more competition, Bell said there’s not enough money in cutting hair. Bell estimates that he’s done between 800 and 900,000 haircuts at Fort Liberty. 

“God was opening the doors. He got me the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve met about every kind of race you can meet and I loved it.”

Hall of Fame

With his award, Bell will join the ranks of other famous barbers throughout history like A.B. Moler, founder of the first American barber school in Chicago in 1893.

Bell said XVIII Airborne Commander Lt. Gen. Chris Donahue submitted his name to the hall of fame. Bell also said Donahue was “one of the finest men” that he’s ever met. “And I’ve been through 25 corps commanders,” he added.

In a statement to Task & Purpose, Donahue said Bell has been a fixture in the Airborne community.

“His loyalty and commitment to our team over the past 57 years is unprecedented. Travis is a great friend, loyal teammate, and has made tremendous sacrifices to serve XVIII Airborne Corps,” Donahue said. Bell, he insisted, is“the reason every Corps Commander has looked so sharp.”

In September, Bell will head to the museum for his award ceremony. It will be his first time traveling on a plane, though he did once get a tandem parachute jump from a team on base.

“It’s been a good ride,” he said.

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Patty Nieberg

Sr. Staff Writer

Patty is a senior staff writer for Task & Purpose. She has covered the military and national defense for five years, including embedding with the National Guard during Hurricane Florence and covering legal proceedings for a former al Qaeda commander at Guantanamo Bay. Her previous bylines can be found at the Associated Press, Bloomberg Government, Washington Post, The New York Times, and ABC.