News

1st FSSG Marine barber cuts it close in Kuwait

18 Feb 2004 | Staff Sgt. Bill Lisbon

Outside the bustling command center for the 1st Force Service Support Group here, sounds a low hum calling to all those with shaggy (by Marine standards) hair.

When the buzz ceases, a Marine throws back the tent flap and announces, "Who's next?"

Outside, in true Marine expeditionary fashion, Sgt. Kimokeo K. Yogi sits his customers down in a folding chair and wraps them in a camouflage poncho while donning an old field-jacket liner as a smock for himself. Whatcha need? "Flat-top?" "Low fade?" "High reg?" "Horseshoe?" He's got it covered. With deft hands, he sets to his work.

Marines place a lot of faith in him, and he understands that very clearly. He is a firm believer that the hair makes the man, and in this case, the Marine.

"I like making Marines look good," he said.

In a branch of service where image is everything, most Marines require weekly haircuts, even in the field. "Barracks barbers" aren't uncommon in the ranks, since Marines have strict hair standards, but for Yogi, it's not a matter of getting a Marine within regulations before getting chewed out by the gunny. It has become his passion.

"I always put my whole heart in it," he said.

Yogi, a 26-year-old native of Honolulu, has never gone to school for barbering. The Marines trained him to be a "wrench-turner," i.e. a heavy-equipment mechanic. His trimming trade was more or less self-taught.

After graduating Farrington High School in Honolulu, his test scores weren't high enough for the Air Force and Army. The Navy was out of the question on account of his personal "no bell-bottoms" rule. So his dad told him to check out the Marines, though Yogi recalls being dubious.

"Why would I join the Marines - a bunch of jarheads? I really didn't think too high of the Marines," he said.

He reconsidered, especially after discovering the prospect of being stationed in Okinawa, Japan, his ancestral home.

His great-grandfather, Kisho Yogi, moved from Okinawa to Hawaii in 1910. Both his grandfather and father were military men - the former, George Kibin Yogi, served with the Army in Germany in World War II. His father, Karl N. Yogi, retired from the Air Force as a staff sergeant.

Yogi still remembers his first haircut, a "rice-bowl" given by his father, who still has the first lock he snipped.

After joining the Marine Corps in 1995, Yogi knew he liked his hair short. But after many weekly trips to the barber's shop, he often emerged dissatisfied with how his hair came out. So, while stationed at Yuma, Ariz., he took things into his own hands. He bought his own clippers, started cutting his own hair (in his trademark "horseshoe") while constantly questioning barbers about techniques.

Being half-Okinawan, Yogi's next duty station was a blessing. In Okinawa, where he spent three years, he got in touch with his roots. He immersed himself in the local culture and brushed up on his dormant Japanese, which he learned as a boy, as well as Hogen, Okinawa's native tongue. Helping him along the way, both in language and his newfound skill, were Okinawan barbers.

Then family tragedy stuck, and Yogi transferred back to the United States to be near his mother, Mary-Kathleen Stewart, who had suffered a stroke. He was assigned to the Inspector/Instructor Staff in San Jose, Calif., which oversaw Marine reservists.

Isolated from a larger military community, Yogi quickly learned that barbers familiar with Marine haircuts were scarce, and some Marines were paying upwards of $20 for haircuts. Also, Yogi noticed that a lot of the reservists showing up for their monthly drills had messed up hair or no haircut at all. So he turned part of his maintenance bay into a barber's shop, and gladly squared away the Marines.

"It gave me lots of practice," he said.

He also found it therapeutic. Around this time, he and his wife, Rendel, were expecting their first child, and there was a chance of medical complications. With this coming on the heels of his mother's stroke, cutting hair gave him an escape from some of the daily stress.

Luckily, his wife gave birth to a healthy girl, Karena. Soon after, Yogi was re-assigned to the 1st Force Service Support Group, based in Camp Pendleton, Calif. There he coordinated heavy-equipment operations during the months before deploying to Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While the Marines were stuffing their sea bags with extra socks and baby wipes, Yogi packed his clippers.

During the war, Yogi's buzzing could be heard from Camp Coyote in Kuwait to Logistical Support Area Viper in Iraq. His reputation grew and Marines of all ranks sought him out for a fresh trim, even at the height of some of the worst sandstorms.

"I heard a lot of people were happy when they heard I was coming back out here because they knew they could get their haircut," said Yogi, who currently works in the 1st FSSG's unit movement control center in Kuwait.

He doesn't charge anything, but he will accept pretty much whatever you offer him. The most he's ever gotten for a haircut? Fifteen dollars paid by a colonel.

For Yogi, though, it's not about the money. It's more about taking care of his fellow Marines the best way he knows how.

"I want a Marine to look like a Marine," he said.

For Marines, a barber is just as valuable as a doctor, providing a service that they cannot do without.

"He's the "go-to guy" for a haircut," said Staff Sgt. Derrick D. Ford, a 32-year-old Miami native, and the 1st FSSG's motor transportation chief in Kuwait, while sporting a fresh Yogi "high-and-tight."

In fact, his command located a full-sized barber's chair for Yogi, which was placed in storage at Camp Commando after the Marines pulled out of Kuwait in 2003. They plan to bring it with them to Iraq, and Yogi hopes he can take it back to his shop at Camp Pendleton after the deployment.

Unfortunately for Yogi, the job isn't full-time. The Marine Corps doesn't have official barber billets; all barbers on base are civilians. If he leaves the ranks when his contract is up in August 2005, Yogi plans to go to school to become a licensed, professional barber.

"There's a lot of stuff I still need to learn," said Yogi.

Until then, he'll remain the 1st FSSG's unofficial forward-deployed barber.

"The barber shop's never closed for me over here," he said.
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