Can a good haircut change your life? “I might be biased,” said Traditional Master Barber Nicolàs “Neekz” Martinez, “but if the way you look effects the way people treat you, and the way you feel about yourself, then yes.”
“Veteran Tonsorialist” Martinez is currently changing lives—one head of hair at a time—with Lucy, his mobile Airstream barbershop. “Cutting hair is my skill, and I want to use it to help people,” he said. “Specifically, U.S. veterans.”
The idea for Operation TradeWind—a cross country tour in a 25-foot 1969 Tradewind retrofitted with barber furnishings and supplies—began to take shape while Martinez was serving in the USMC.
“When I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2004 as an infantry communications Marine, I never imagined that I would find myself in combat giving my brothers-and-sisters-in-arms haircuts in the most hostile and dangerous environments in the world,” he wrote on his GoFundMe page. “I kept a visual log of these cuts, and the memories they bring are of both joy and sorrow. To this day, my battle buddies still track me down and reminisce with me about those ‘combat cuts’. I remember how great they felt after a simple haircut, when most times we couldn’t even get a shower.”
During deployment to Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom), Martinez discovered a way to use his barbering skills during some very trying times. “We lost many comrades,” he said. “I saw my fellow servicemen coping with casualties, and I felt compelled to try and lighten the load of my brothers—and pick my own mood up—the only way I knew how.” He began giving “comedic” haircuts, and offering sharp styles, too. “It gave me great pleasure to see that in the intimate moments with a barber, a client can let the walls fall down, and we could both let the pack fall off our backs,” he said. “Trust and confidence grows.”
“In travels across the dangerous areas of operations I always kept my clippers handy, so I could brighten up somebody’s day,” he said. “In secret, this was my way to cope with those same issues.” Offering the haircuts “gave me a greater sense of purpose in an otherwise hopeless position.”
Martinez brought the concept with him when he returned to civilian life, and has begun an Airstream tour of the U.S., cutting hair along the way for fellow veterans and people in need.
“At the end of my tour of duty I found it hard to make the transition back into civilian society,” he explained. “Combat changes you. I found it hard to gain employment. You hear lots of talk about supporting our nation’s veterans; we even have our own holiday. But once I hit the job market, it was hard to find employment. I began to think that spending my time serving my country instead of learning a marketable skill might have been a bad investment. I thought having been a Marine—having proved that I had the discipline, perseverance, and courage to serve—would be enough.”
“I’ve spoken to many veterans since, only to discover they have had the same kind of issues. Reintegrating into society is tough on many levels including the simple things like, ‘what kind of a haircut am I supposed to get now?’ Years in uniform don’t exactly teach you fashion sense.”
“While waiting for a job that never came, I remembered that I did have a marketable skill. I opened up my first barbershop and haven’t looked back since,” he said. “I feel very grateful for what I was given, and now I want to give something back to other struggling people the only way I know—by giving free haircuts, listening, and talking.”
Martinez immediately realized that his shop needed to be mobile to serve the greatest number of people, and he soon found Lucy the Tradewind about 40 miles from House of Fades Luxury Cuts, his brick and mortar barbershop in upstate New York. Why an Airstream? “Something about the timeless, world renowned, and respected aesthetic of the Airstream brand,” he explained, “and the pride exhibited by fellow Airstreamers is unlike other caravaners. It reminds me of the same endearing yet slightly arrogant enthusiasm shown by my fellow Marines that separate us from the rest of the military. We know we’re the best and it shows in how we take the utmost attention to detail.”
Lucy underwent a complete retrofit in her transformation to a barbershop. “We had to gut her out,” said Martinez. “We relaid some wood flooring, replaced the windows with high grade fiberglass, repainted the interior, re-boxed the wheel wells with black leather and rivets, and installed a solar generator with a 4-panel array to keep her fully sustainable. She’s not where we envision her quite yet, but that’s all part of the adventure!”
The mobile barbershop hosts two to four people comfortably, and features two military cots for lounging, hammocks repurposed from his old parachutes, and a mini bar.
Martinez launched Operation TradeWind during the holidays, and began offering haircuts on the street in New York on Christmas day—his birthday. From there he and his young family (wife and baby daughter) towed south to Florida, where he’s been focusing attention on connecting with veterans returning from deployment. Vets are offered haircuts for free, though they sometimes reciprocate with a generous donation. (Civvies, you can get styled too—at a reasonable price.) Martinez also offers haircuts and encouragement to those in need at food pantries and shelters. He plans his route by contacting local organizations—the United Way, YMCA, and “any other agency focusing on helping the disenfranchised,” he said. “The homeless are everywhere. When we see them we simply say hello and introduce ourselves with how can we help them.” He uses social media to let communities know where to find him, “and a cool looking Airstream rolling into town helps a lot, too,” he said.
“When they see it most say ‘wow, is that yours?’ As if I’m too young to own an old Airstream and a van from the seventies,” he laughed. “People think I’m transporting it for my grandpa or something. But when they look inside, their faces are priceless.”
Martinez is simultaneously collecting film footage of the barber/client conversations held in the Airstream for a documentary that will focus on the transition and reintegration of veterans back into civilian society. “It’s about what goes on in the mind of a veteran, and the advice passed along via the barber’s chair,” he said. “It will help give perspective on how our minds tick to a different time after being separated from our loved ones, and our favorite places.” Martinez hopes to educate the public about the growing number of homeless veterans, who “account for 12% of the overall homeless population in America,” he said. “And on average, 22 veterans per day commit suicide; veterans have more comrades under the ground than above it. This is shameful, and needs immediate attention.”
Operation TradeWind is about “showing people that a small gesture from anyone to anyone can make this world better,” he said. Though the journey is just getting underway, Martinez has already had countless unforgettable experiences and significant interactions with fellow veterans. “The best form of compliment are the hugs and appreciation and tears from people in need. It’s beyond words when you turn them toward the mirror and see their eyes well up,” he said. “I know it may sound cheesy, but every moment is inspiring.”
How to support Operation TradeWind
Company sponsorships are welcome, and donations may be contributed through the Cross Country Barber GoFund.me site “Even a simple dollar from many people, or a click to share the page will help another seeking a house, or a job placement,” said Martinez. “Or most of all, a smile—as opposed to a glare—for a man or woman who doesn’t look like what’s considered the norm.” Use hashtag #HaircutsAcrossAmerica for social media sharing.
-By RG Coleman