Free haircuts for veterans among several unique volunteer opportunities at Charleston VA hospital

Inside the salon space at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center nursing home, Denise Cromell laughs along with fellow barber Johnny Simmons and their clients William Bowens, left, and William Britton. Cromell has been volunteering for years cutting the hair of veterans housed in the nursing home of the VA in Charleston for many years. Buy this photo

A pair of Bills sat side by side in their motorized wheel chairs in the residential section of the VA hospital in downtown Charleston on a recent morning.

Bill Bowens, 63, and Bill Britton, 66, laughed and joked with each other while each had their hair cut. Both men served in the Army, and both have experienced loss and hardship, yet their senses of humor remain intact.

"He's ready to re-enlist," Britton joked after Bowens' hair was trimmed. While the two spent their time chuckling, they spoke seriously about how grateful they were for something as simple as a haircut, a service offered by volunteer barbers in the hospital's Community Living Center, a residential program for veterans.

"I was looking a little rough," said Bowens, who said he was a door gunner during the Vietnam War.

Master barber Denise Cromwell has been cutting hair for veterans for about 15 years. Her uncle was a Vietnam War veteran, and she started the service in his honor, she said. About twice a month Cromwell and her associates from Barbering Plus in North Charleston visit the veterans and spruce them up.

"It makes me feel good that I'm assisting," Cromwell said. "These veterans have given so much of themselves for the freedom I enjoy."

Cromwell said she gets as much out of spending time with veterans as they get from her haircuts. "They share stories about being in the military," she said. "I let them know I'm honored to cut their hair." A recent house fire put Cromwell on hiatus from her visits for a few months, but students from Top of the Line Barber of West Ashley stepped in to help while she was away.

Timothy Harrison, 46, a student of the barber school, has been cutting hair at the hospital for the last few months. A veteran himself, Harrison served in the Navy during the Persian Gulf War.

"They relate to me," Harrison said. "To see the smiles on their faces. I really enjoy being here."

The hair cuts are just one service provided by volunteers at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston. There are several opportunities to help, according to Fred Lesinski, chief of the VA Voluntary Service Program. "People have that candy striper image when thinking about volunteering at the hospital," Lesinski said. "Patient comfort is important, but there's so much more." Lesinski said those wishing to donate their time can provide an array of services, including patient reminder phone calls, transportation and yoga instruction. A full list of needed services is available on the volunteer services website.

There are 752 volunteers currently signed up to provide assistance and 584 volunteers logging hours, Lesinski said.

He encourages those in the community who can't offer their time to donate money to the hospital. Recently, Lesinski pointed to a new aviary inside the residential section of the hospital, which was purchased through funds donated by Charleston Elks Lodge 242. Lesinski said there's a resident who has made it his mission to visit the birds daily. "That's a pretty small price to pay to keep someone's will intact," he said.

One hundred percent of the donations go to the patients; none goes to administrative costs, according to Lesinski.

The help goes a long way for veterans like the Bills, whose time sharing war stories with the volunteers is cherished. Last week, after Britton and Bowens were done, Yorkay Young, 53, the only female living in the residential section, was next in line.

The spunky Army veteran wanted her hair re-braided by Cromwell. The two had known each other when Cromwell was a child. She had grown up living near Young in Hollywood.

"When I came here, I thought, 'Yorkay, what are you doing here?' " Cromwell said.

For Cromwell, it's just another incentive to continue her visits. While she admits times may get tough, a little time with these heroes can go a long way for her and them.

Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.

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