Photo Information

Phendell "Jay" Johnson, the base barber for Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, gives LCpl Chase Foree, military police, a haircut at the new, temporary barbershop at building 18 aboard MCLB Barstow, Feb. 27, 2024. Jay enjoys taking the moments he has with his customers to talk to them.

Photo by Sgt. Anika Lewis

A Barber's Purpose

27 Feb 2024 | Sgt. Anika Avila Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow

Phendell “Jay” Johnson, a native of Virginia and the base barber for Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, enlisted in the United States Army in 1986. His reason for joining the armed forces was to get away from home. His father had also served in the United States Navy, which further inspired his decision to serve.

Jay served for a total of eight years as a 63H Track Vehicle Repairer at Fort Irwin National Training Center in Barstow, California. He had originally planned to serve only one enlistment. However, when he was approaching his end of active service, the Gulf War broke out in 1990. His original plan to only serve one enlistment changed when he was told he would have to complete another four years in the U.S. Army Reserve. Instead, Jay decided to remain on active duty for an additional four years and completely separate from the military afterward.

“What I really loved about the military was learning what made people tick,” Jay said. “For me, the military was an opportunity to meet people from different parts of the world and be surrounded by different ideas and different mindsets.”

At the end of his eight years of service, Jay felt he had done his part for his country and was ready to begin a new chapter of his life.

“To me, being a veteran means that I served my country. I helped protect my country, and I have every right to have an interest in everything that’s going on in this country because I served my time.”

After separating from the Army, Jay spent some time in Virginia and then came back to the High Desert before finding his next purpose in life. During that time, Jay said he felt God showed him his life’s direction through a vision.

“This is crazy,” Jay admitted. “It is the main reason I came back to Barstow. One day, I was walking my dogs in Virginia. Just like that, a set of hands came on me and I had a vision of a barber shop. I’ve never cut hair in the military, and I’ve never thought about cutting hair, but this vision still came to me. I saw a barber chair and a barber cape. I felt like God wanted me to do hair.”

Jay acted on that calling by using his GI bill to attend barber school. The barber school he attended also had a contract with the Richmond prison, allowing Jay and the other barbers in attendance the opportunity to cut prisoners' hair and teach the inmates how to cut hair. Ideally, some of the prisoners would take the skill and become barbers themselves once released from prison. It was a unique experience that inspired Jay to want to use the idea at another prison in California.

Before becoming a barber, Jay worked for his old corporation collecting data on the training exercises at Fort Irwin. However, three months before his contract ended, Jay was laid off due to a funding shortage in the company.

“Just getting out of the military, I never heard that before in my life,” Jay commented. “When they laid me off, I knew the barbershop at Fort Irwin was always hiring. So, I applied and started immediately. I was laid off on Wednesday and started working at the barbershop on Friday.”

He worked at the Fort Irwin barbershop for about a year. During this time, Jay still had the desire to start a prison program cutting hair, just like he had done at the Richmond prison. However, since he had no experience with government contracts, Jay decided it was better suited for him to look for another opportunity elsewhere.

His interest was piqued when he heard that MCLB Barstow also had a barbershop.

“I went to the one-chair barbershop at MCLB Barstow and asked if they were hiring,” he said. “The barber there said no. That night, God laid it on my heart to write down the days I wanted to work at the Barstow barbershop anyway, so I did.”

At that time, Jay was working Monday through Friday at Fort Irwin. He also used the rest of his GI bill to attend beauty school. While he was there, he received a call from the barber at MCLB Barstow. She now wanted to switch days with him, since the company was the same for MCLB Barstow’s and Fort Irwin’s barbershops. Jay quickly told her the days he wanted to work, using the list he had written down when he first applied at the Marine base.

“When I came to MCLB Barstow and sat down in the barber chair, the vision of the barbershop I had in Virginia was right there,” Jay reflected.
Although he was grateful for the opportunity to work with the Marines and civilians at MCLB Barstow, Jay remembered he had to overcome an initial challenge in barbering at his new job.

“When I started working at MCLB Barstow, everybody was complaining that I was cutting Army fades,” he said. “I didn’t know what they meant, but I decided to take 30 days to self-assess and try and figure out how to serve my customers better. When I got home, I looked in the mirror and saw my Army keychain. I took it off and haven’t had a problem since.”

Jay’s original contract with MCLB Barstow should have been for five years. Yet 24 years later, he is still working at the base barbershop.

“I always tell people I love what I do and that’s why I’ve been here so long,” said Jay. “I love meeting people, and I love hearing people’s stories.”

Jay finds such fulfillment in barbering that he said if he had been a barber originally, he never would have joined the military.

As a barber, Jay said people come in and tell him a lot of things. He joked that a barber, hairstylist, and bartender are the people who get to hear the most from their customers. Jay says being a barber has helped him value the importance of letting people speak and respecting people’s opinions, whether he agrees with them or not.

Taking time to get to know his customers and talking with them is what Jay enjoys most about working at MCLB Barstow.

“I could make a lot more money barbering at Fort Irwin,” Jay said. “But there, we don’t have time to talk. We’re moving customers out quickly. I know that the barbershop at MCLB Barstow was a gift given to me.”

Jay strives to be a lighthouse for people by offering guidance and lending a listening ear. He wants to be the type of person that people feel comfortable talking to, especially the young Marines on base.

One of the things that matters most to Jay is making a difference, both in his personal and professional life. He wants to make the world a better place and leave a good legacy behind him.

“I always tell people to make something out of their name,” Jay said. “Your name travels a lot farther than you do, so make sure you have a good name.”

At MCLB Barstow, Jay feels he has found his purpose in life. With each haircut, he does what he can to make the world a better place and to leave a lasting legacy.

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