The walls of Travis Bell’s modest barbershop on Fort Bragg are lined with history.
Photos of Army heroes are here, men such as the late Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons, a Special Forces legend best known for leading the Son Tay raid during an attempted rescue of American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Former Army leaders have found their way on the walls, too, including Gens. Hugh Shelton, Ray Odierno, Lloyd Austin, and Stanley McChrystal.
Some are official photos. Others were taken from Bell’s barber chair in the center of his shop. In a few, it’s Bell in the chair and a general behind him, playfully holding a pair of clippers.
Nearly every photograph includes a handwritten note to Bell, who has been a fixture on Fort Bragg for more than half the Army post’s almost 100-year history.
“Thanks for your dedication and friendship,” wrote Lt. Gen. Mike Ferriter, who served as a deputy commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps from 2007 to 2009.
“Thank you for your friendship, support, and dedicated service to America,” wrote Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who commanded the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg from 2005 to 2007.
“To Travis with deep respect,” wrote McChrystal, who served as chief of staff of the corps and later commanded Joint Special Operations Command and the US war in Afghanistan before his retirement in 2010.
After 50 years of standing behind his barber chair, Fort Bragg leaders pulled Bell out into the open July 7 to honor him for his decades of service.
Maj. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, deputy commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps and the acting senior commander of Fort Bragg, said Bell has had a lasting impact on Fort Bragg and its leaders that stretches well beyond making them look good.
“He’s shaped a lot of leaders in the Corps,” the general said. “He has probably counseled every Corps commander since 1967.”
Bell, 77, has long served as a sounding board for soldiers across the 18th Airborne Corps, LaCamera said. And he has more time in the headquarters than anyone in history.
As a token of appreciation, the general presented Bell with a book full of handwritten letters from past Army leaders.
“The impact he’s had…” LaCamera said. “Who he has touched… It’s unbelievable. We’ve got a man who has had a tremendous impact.”
Bell opened his shop on Fort Bragg during the week of July 4, 1967. The then-27-year-old had worked on post for several months by that time — first at the old E-4 club, which would eventually become the Noncommissioned Officers Club, and then briefly at the 1st Corps Support Command headquarters.
Bell recalls accepting the job at the 18th Airborne Corps reluctantly.
In 1966, he turned down a similar job on Fort Bragg when he learned that the Corps headquarters was “where all that high brass” was stationed.
Instead, Bell kept working as a night foreman at a poultry plant in Robeson County. He cut hair on the side for a quarter or $.35 a cut.
When another job at Fort Bragg opened — this time with lower-ranking troops as the customers — Bell jumped at the opportunity.
“I was one of them,” he said of the privates and privates first class who were among his first customers on post. “I was right at home.”
It would take Bell weeks to feel comfortable cutting the hair of soldiers at higher ranks.
When a lieutenant sat in his chair for the first time, Bell said he froze.
“I got so nervous I couldn’t hardly finish,” he said.
When Bell was offered the job at the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters a second time, he said he felt he had little choice but to accept it.
“It was go there or go home,” he said.
Bell grew up on a Robeson County farm, one of nine boys who worked the fields alongside their father. Later, he would be a painter, carpenter, plumber and mechanic, and do other odd jobs along the way.
He said he viewed cutting hair as his way out of those jobs, learning from an older brother and practicing on his siblings.
But settling into his shop at the 18th Airborne Corps, Bell would have had no idea he would still be there 50 years later.
“I thought I wouldn’t even last the first day,” he said. “But I made it through that. Then I made it through another one. And another one.”
Bell estimates that he has cut more than a million heads of hair at Fort Bragg, although he said business is a lot slower these days, with much of the 18th Airborne Corps deployed to lead the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“My customers are over in the war,” he said.
Originally, Bell charged 90 cents per cut. Today, the cost ranges from $8.55 to $10.75.
Bell has cut the hair of 23 Fort Bragg commanders, starting with Lt. Gen. Robert H. York in 1967.
The general walked into Bell’s shop, shook his hand and introduced himself, Bell said.
“I was so nervous, to this day I haven’t told him my name,” he said.
Those nerves would eventually go away. And Bell would become a trusted counselor to Fort Bragg’s leaders.
Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, who retired on Fort Bragg last week after a career that culminated as vice chief of staff for the Army, said he sought out Bell to cut his hair one last time before he stepped away from the military.
Gen. Daniel B. Allyn. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill.
Allyn thanked Bell alongside current and former Army leaders.
“Travis has been cutting the hair of airborne troopers for over 50 years,” Allyn said. “He lowered my locks one final time this week. Thank you for not only keeping us looking as good as possible but thanks for your constant reminder of the impact of faith in our lives.”
When not cutting hair, Bell is often seen reading from a Bible he keeps in his shop.
He said he still makes the drive from Lumberton to Fort Bragg each day.
The July 7 celebration was just one way the Fort Bragg community said thanks to Bell. It was also his first day back in a newly remodeled barber shop.
And on July 6, he rode in an airplane for the first time in his life, flying with the US Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights.
Bell still hasn’t been on a plane when it landed, though. The 77-year-old touched the ground while strapped to a member of the parachute team.
“I’m airborne now,” he said July 7, proudly recalling the experience of the day before.
Bell said Fort Bragg is home now.
“They take care of me good around here,” he said. “It’s been a real pleasure.”
And after 50 years, the barber has no plans to slow down.
“I’m enjoying it right now,” he said. “I don’t know when I’m going to retire.”