Chris Pomeleo spent spring 2007 locked inside a gutted Baghdad shopping mall, thinking about the snipers outside.
Gunmen perched on rooftops and the streets belonged to “Mad Mortarmen,” murderous militants who’d rigged up mortar tubes on the back of pickup trucks like something out of Mad Max. They shelled the mall repeatedly.
Troops in Pomeleo’s squadron never went out during the day — a lesson learned from casualties suffered by the unit they’d replaced.
At 28, Pomeleo was older than most of his comrades and had experience in the tech field. He was put on computer duty, tracking troop movements on radio and live video feeds. When troops came under fire, or isolated a group of enemies, Pomeleo called in air assaults. When one of their vehicles drove over a bomb, Pomeleo called for a medevac to rescue survivors. Or to collect the dead.
Pomeleo had arrived as part of the “surge” sent to smother the embers of a civil war. With 126 soldiers killed, May 2007 was the deadliest month of the war for America. It was Pomeleo’s first month in Iraq.
A friend back home sent Pomeleo a care package containing a barber’s kit. There, in the shell of a shopping mall — and later at one of Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palaces — Pomeleo set up shop as the squadron’s unofficial hair guy.
“I just figured it out,” he says. “After a while, it started to flow. I enjoyed doing it. It was kind of an escape.”
The barber’s chair became a therapist’s couch for soldiers coming in off night missions. Pomeleo would put on music — Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album was a hit — and wait for a line of guys looking for a trim and some conversation.
Some wanted to talk about the war. Others blabbed about home to take their mind off what they’d just survived.
A lot of Pomeleo’s fellow troops knew he was gay. Though he served in the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” squadron members didn’t seem to care. If anything, Pomeleo got more trouble from religious, conservative family members back home. His brothers-in-arms knew it was his eyes on the screen, guiding them home safely each night.
Other soldiers who were gay but kept it a secret sought Pomeleo out. They envied his comfort in his own skin.
“I didn’t ever want my sexuality to determine my personality,” he says. “I’m not ultramacho. I’m not ultra-anything.”
After his tour was up, Pomeleo struggled adjusting to life back home in Atlanta. He “failed a couple times in life,” enrolling in, then bolting from a design school. He took jobs hawking phones for Verizon, answering customer service calls. He drank too much. He was a shitty boyfriend, flashing a temper that roiled just under the surface.
In 2010 Pomeleo left Atlanta, seeking a fresh start in Minneapolis, where he’d lived from age three to 13. He got back into the barber business, finding work at a “really, really popular” shop and building a roster of clients. He got a hold of his drinking and started seeing a therapist at the VA hospital to talk his way through “sick shit” he’d seen in the war.
Just when things were coming back together, Pomeleo was suddenly fired last year. The shop owner approached him one day after work and said, “I don’t understand your kind.” Being gay wasn’t an issue in the army. Pomeleo managed to find discrimination in the hairstyling business.
He talked to a client, a lawyer, who told Pomeleo he had an open-and-shut lawsuit — and why he shouldn’t bring it.
“You could pursue this,” the lawyer told him. “Or you could use that energy and be successful.”
Try smashingly successful. Last summer, Pomeleo opened Prohibition Barbers in the basement space of Semple Mansion near Stevens Square. He’s never advertised, and you can’t even see the barbershop door from the street.
Exactly one year after Prohibition opened, Pomeleo was booked solid. He’ll clear six figures this year, with the only assistance coming from Bertha Mae, his cheerful, bowling ball-headed pitbull.
Pomeleo’s diverse rolodex has him keeping ex-Special Forces men high and tight while navigating androgyny for LGBT customers. One day last week, he gave a slick boy cut to a client with a feminine appearance and a man’s name. “God I needed that,” the customer said, immediately booking another appointment.
Pomeleo and his next customer passed time with cordial small talk until the client started talking about his brother, who’d been tossed from the Army after a DUI.
Pomeleo asked a knowing, poignant question about the client’s father. Its answer is the sort of thing that doesn’t leave the shop.
Pomeleo knows a couple of veterans who are in barber school. He’s hoping to get them set up in his rustic space by next year. If they start racking up clients, and it gets crowded, Pomeleo is thinking about expanding.
“I remember not wanting to be a statistic,” Pomeleo says, thinking back to his dark days. “I really feel all the suicides among vets, soldiers, who can’t seem to get it together, and I want to be a beacon of hope. You can figure it out.”
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