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To help U.S. troops ease back into civilian life, veteran Anthony Bravo Esparza offers them a haircut, and a safe and friendly place to hang out. Esparza — known to his friends as "Dreamer" — sees it as a way to help former soldiers find their way.
Dreamer's barbershop is easy to find; it's set up inside a trailer in the parking lot of the West Los Angeles Medical Center campus of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
Last year, Army vet Paul Crowley went in for a haircut. Since then, he has become Dreamer's assistant. They sat down recently to talk about how their friendship began.
"When I showed up, I was washed," says Crowley, 60.
"Yeah, you'd been drinking," answers Dreamer, 67.
"I was totally out of hope. And part of that was the way I looked. I hadn't shaved in a couple of weeks; my hair was filthy and scraggly," Crowley says. "But getting the haircut made me feel, for lack of a better word, 'normal' — which I hadn't in a long, long time."
Back then, Dreamer says, "I saw a guy that could at some point, rise above it. And I just felt that I can help ya."
Crowley first came to Dreamer's trailer in 2009. He hung around there for a while, but he didn't get his first haircut until 2011.
"Abraham Lincoln once said, 'Never underestimate the power of a haircut,' " Dreamer says — and then he acknowledges that he's taking some historic license. "Of course, he never said that — but he should've said it."
Working from a white trailer that's decorated with plants and streamers, Dreamer cuts the hair of 200 veterans a month.
He's been cutting veterans' hair at little or no cost for years now. Several years ago, he started working out of the trailer at the VA complex. Now the shop has chairs and umbrellas out front — all in patriotic red, white and blue.
And he also has Crowley around, to lend a hand.
"I mean, I'm not cutting hair," Crowley says. "But when I'm there at the trailer — I've watched a guy that just came right off the streets, not doing too well, and the only thing he has to pay you with is an orange."
"Whatever you got, we'll make a deal," Dreamer says. "I got rubber band balls; I've got pebbles, rocks, washers."
"I've never seen you turn anybody away. It's amazing to me to see the guys that come in, in the beginning," Crowley says. "And then after they've been there a little while, they're going out to look for work."
And before long, he says, "they walk in with a suit, and the haircut you had given them the day before. And you can't even recognize them compared to the day they walked in there. You impressed me from the very start, and I respect what you have imparted to me. It's what has made me into a better person, because of my interaction with you."
"Thank you, buddy. We're going to move forward — that's why we comb our hair backwards," Dreamer says with a laugh.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.