Working for the armed forces in high-conflict areas can be a hair-raising experience, but Cory Simmons of Apollo Beach manages to let his hair down.
And down and down some more.
At the moment, the dark golden strands fall a few inches past his shoulders. In two or three years, he hopes to have tresses long enough to make his third donation to Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization based in South Florida that provides custom wigs for financially disadvantaged children with permanent hair loss.
"About every eight years, I have enough," Simmons said in a telephone interview from Camp Eggers, the U.S. military base in Kabul, Afghanistan.
"I basically cut it off when it starts to annoy me."
Simmons, 49, is a senior systems engineer for Microsoft products with BAE Systems at U.S. Central Command in Tampa. He has worn his hair long all his life and is used to second glances from strangers. But his mane attracts outright stares in Afghanistan, where military members wear close-cropped coiffures and where locals typically keep their hair under wraps.
"When I first arrived here, I got a lot of looks," said Simmons, who has been in Kabul for almost three months. "They would just kind of look at me like I was an alien."
When Simmons explains that he is growing hair for Locks of Love, people usually signal their acceptance, he said. He thinks he recently won over a civilian worker in the base chow line who had been staring at him.
"He looked at me and said, 'Beautiful hair,' " Simmons recalled.
Simmons has performed military contract jobs for about eight years and has been deployed five times, including stints in Iraq, Qatar and Guantanamo Bay.
Americans who make their living in the Middle East or Afghanistan run the daily risk of enemy gunfire or terrorist attacks, such as the recent assault on the U.S. Embassy a block from the base.
Other times, life on the base can be a bit humdrum, so a long-haired, self-described computer geek who plays the guitar and has a penchant for alternative rock can provide a diversion. Simmons said a colleague recently told him, "Everybody's talking about you.''
To pass the time on base, Simmons gives guitar lessons to students who range from sergeants to colonels.
Simmons said he made his first Locks of Love donation anonymously in 2000. In 2008 he donated a 15-inch ponytail in the name of his mother, Barbara Barnes, who died in 1986. He said she cut off her hair and gave it to an organization similar to Locks of Love shortly before undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
"She decided to donate her hair instead of letting it all fall out," Simmons said.
Now his older brother has been diagnosed with throat cancer. Simmons plans to donate another 15-inch lock of hair in his brother's name. When he cuts it, he'll keep 7 inches or so on his head for growing stock.
Locks of Love spokeswoman Lauren Kukkamaa said the organization has received many hair donations from U.S. military personnel, typically when it's cut just before basic training. Donated hair goes into custom-made wigs made from molds of individual children's heads.
"It actually takes six to 10 donations for one hairpiece," Kukkamaa said. "We are grateful to all our donors."
Locks of Love has aided more than 3,000 children throughout the United States and Canada since the nonprofit group was incorporated in late 1997, she said. Some recipients receive several hairpieces during their childhood because they outgrow the wig or it wears out.
The custom-made wigs typically go to children ages 6 to 18 who have permanent hair loss because of a medical condition or severe burns, Kukkamaa said. Younger children or those undergoing chemotherapy may receive synthetic hair from the organization.
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.