From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, to a kids’ salon

Retired U.S. Marine finds the perfect post, thanks to a civic-minded business owner

His 22 years in the U.S. Marine Corps had Dave Beltran-Roof ready to act when tensions started to escalate.

He assumed a tactical position, looked the other guy in the eye and delicately defused the situation. The peace deal he brokered lasted two minutes. Then the kid started squalling again.

“Haircuts weren’t his thing,” he said with a chuckle.

It was Beltran-Roof’s third day on a job he never dreamed of while growing up in a military family and then joining the Corps, where his jobs included loading bombs and missiles onto combat aircraft. Decades after Desert Storm, years after Afghanistan, he’s now a receptionist at the east Cobb location of Pigtails & Crewcuts, a kids’ hairstyling salon.

“Certainly, he doesn’t fit the mold, but I don’t like judging people by their cover,” shop owner Nancy Anderson said.

How the sturdily built warrior with tattoos on both arms ended up in her shop, a cheery place overflowing with cuteness, is the kind of tale portrayed in holiday movies we’ve all been streaming on Netflix these days. Only this one is real.

MORE: What are the highest grossing Christmas movies of all time?

A California native and the son and nephew of military men, Beltran-Roof enlisted four days after graduating from high school and retired in 2010 as a staff sergeant. He and his wife at the time decided to settle in metro Atlanta.

“I kind of had life planned out,” he said. As it turns out, he didn’t.

“One of the hardest things for Marines to do once we’re retired is to come back to the civilian community and function properly,” he said. “It’s difficult to make friends, it’s difficult to socialize.”

Having lived through rocket and mortar attacks, he found getting along with colleagues in a normal workplace could be tricky. He loved his first civilian job, at a grocery store chain known for its effusively cheerful staff members, but personal interactions could be stressful. After a few years there, he decided to take a break.

“I was literally raised in the Marine Corps. That’s who I am,” Beltran-Roof said. “It’s hard to change that.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

His marriage also ended, although he and his former wife, with whom he has three children, ages 18 to 24, remain on good terms. Still, with the holidays approaching, he launched a new job hunt with a sense of urgency.

“There is no job beneath me,” he said. After applying for a slew of positions without luck, he posted on a neighborhood Facebook page, asking for leads. He soon heard from Anderson.

“She didn’t tell me what the job was until the follow-up conversation,” Beltran-Roof said. “Then it was like, ‘Well, that’s going to be different.’ ”

Anderson grew up in Argentina, coming to America at 18.

“Like any immigrant, for a better life,” she said. “I grew up poor, with no indoor plumbing. We wore hand-me-down clothes. I don’t remember having cookies until I was an adult.”

She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work from the University of Maryland, and met her husband while she was in school. She and Scott Anderson have two children, 14 and 16, and Nancy became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

“This country has given me a lot of opportunity,” she said. “I found a community, a place to make home. I have loved being a small business owner. It allows me to make many connections.”

Her shops collect donations for organizations like MUST Ministries, and sometimes offer haircuts to those who can’t afford it.

“I’ve always thought beyond making a living,” she said. “I am where I am because others believed in me and gave me opportunities to do better. I never forget that.”

Anderson is a Christian who grew up in the church, but has stepped away from organized religion, weary of “people passing judgment and using religion to pass judgment.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

But she lives her faith. When she saw the post from a retired Marine seeking work, she didn’t hesitate.

“He just came across as genuine to me,” Anderson said. “He is very warm and very likable. He was not as tough as he comes across in his profile picture.”

And being around kids, even 5-year-olds not one bit interested in a trim, proved a smoother fit for Beltran-Roof than negotiating the dynamics of his former workplace had been at first.

“I’m having a blast,” he said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year that the unemployment rate for Gulf War Era II veterans (those who served from 2001 on) was 4.5 percent in 2017. The nation's overall unemployment rate ended the year at 4.1 percent. The jobless rate for all veterans declined from 4.3 percent to 3.7 percent in 2017, and parsing the numbers further, the unemployment rate of just male Gulf War-era II veterans was the same as the rate for male nonveterans, the bureau reported.

But nearly a third of veterans are underemployed, a study from ZipRecruiter and the Call of Duty Endowment found.

“Underemployment appears to disproportionately affect veterans,” said Endowment adviser Phillip Carter, a former U.S. Army officer who now directs the Military, Veterans and Society program at the Center for a New American Security and teaches law at Georgetown University. “Government statistics barely notice the underemployment phenomenon, and do not begin to constructively address it through improved training, job search and network programs.”

The Georgia Department of Labor aims to help with programs such"Vets to Cops," "Troops to Teachers" and "Hero 2 Hired."

Beltran-Roof said just getting a response would have been nice from the employers he struck out with.

“Even if you wouldn’t have hired me, I would have still thanked you for the opportunity,” he told Anderson as they prepared for the busy Saturday before Christmas. There wasn’t much time for chitchat once young customers started arriving for their holiday appointments, but Anderson and her new employee seemed to be on the same communications frequency.

“Maybe it’s a cultural thing,” Anderson said, explaining that she’s known for a very direct approach. “Anyone who does 22 years in the Marines … I’m not going to hurt his feelings.”

With his jaunty Santa hat and beaming smile, Beltran-Roof appeared more teddy bear than warrior, although he’ll put his combat experience to use if he needs to. (“God help the person who comes in the door with ill intent,” is how he put it.)

He also doesn’t see his new role as a merely just-for-now gig.

“My job here is going to be to do whatever I can to make the stylists’ job easier and make Nancy’s life easier,” he said, adding that he’s thinking about using the GI Bill to go to school to learn how to cut hair. “This might be my thing. You never know.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer