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Iraq vets go shaggy to break with the past

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Captain Andrew Rouchka hugs his wife, Kate, in a welcome home ceremony in Bamberg, Germany after returning from his second combat tour in Iraq on Oct. 24, 2006. (Photo Courtesy of Andrew Rouchka)

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A long-haired Andy Rouchka takes a beer break after a long morning of skiing in Killington, Vermont in Feb. 2008, one year after getting out of the Army. (Photo Courtesy of Andrew Rouchka)

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First Lieutenant Joseph Rollin poses for his official Army photograph in 2005, just before his first combat tour in Iraq. (Photo Courtesy of Joseph Rollin)

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A sun and wind-burned Joe Rollin records his post-Army beard after months spent mountain-biking and climbing across the country in Sept. 2007. (Photo Courtesy of Joseph Rollin)

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Second Lieutenant Luke Bohanan leads a patrol in the villages outside of Logistical Support Area Anaconda in Balad, Iraq in Oct. 2003. (Photo Courtesy of Luke Bohanan)

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A heavily bearded Luke (aka Bobby) Bohanan displays the catch of the day while fishing off the coast of Oregon in July 2007, five months after he left the Army. (Photo Courtesy of Luke Bohanan)

When strangers ask him how long he has been out of the Army, Andy Rouchka reaches up and holds an 8-inch lock of his wavy blond hair and says, “This long.”

A former Army officer from Carmel, N.Y. with two Iraq tours under his belt, Rouchka, 27, hung up the uniform last year for good and went to law school. Along the way, he adopted a beard and long tresses, a look more suited for Woodstock than Baghdad. Growing it all out is part of the transition to civilian life, he said.

“Rebelling against the uniform military look is a way to feel your individuality again,” said Rouchka, who now rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, too. “It’s part of breaking ties with my old world, and reaching out to a new world.”

Buzzcuts and close shaves are the mandated look when serving one’s country. But due to mixed feelings about their tough tours in Iraq, a growing number of recently discharged Army officers are going shaggy to break with the past.

It is impossible to quantify this post-service trend, but experts who follow former troops said that they saw this phenomenon decades ago with Vietnam veterans who re-entered civilian life with similar ambivalence about their military missions.

Dr. Arthur S. Blank, Jr., national director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Vet Center from 1982 to 1994, said that Rouchka’s extreme makeover touches on the stigma of the Iraq war. “It is a reason that people would want to get rid of their military identity,” Blank said, “even if the general atmosphere is positive about troopers in Iraq.”

Before he joined the Army, Rouchka, spent his summers surfing in California and his winters skiing in Vail. While proud of his military service, the 6-foot-7-inch recipient of the Bronze Star said that he always disliked classification as the “military guy” during his rare Army leaves. His new hirsute look is a combination of reacting to authority and going through a pivotal lifestyle change, said Rouchka, whose classmates at Vermont Law School are always surprised to learn that the grizzled student next to them was an Army captain just a year ago.

In the Army, uniform appearance is one way to measure discipline in the ranks. The idea is that if a soldier cannot shave each morning and keep his boots shined, then how can he be counted on to take the hill when the time comes? Soldiers must stay groomed even when off-duty.

Appearance is even more important for officers, who must enforce the rules and present an example of grooming to the soldiers under their command.

But that can sometimes be hard for people like Luke Bohanan, a 27-year-old New Jersey native. Every day for four years in the Army, Bohanan’s clean-shaven face bristled with jet-black stubs by noon. “In the Army, I always got a bad look,” he said. “People would constantly say to me, ‘Captain Bohanan, did you shave today?’”

In Iraq, he went through razor blades like a machine gunner goes through ammunition. “When you wake up every morning and the very first thing you do is shave, you are instantly reminded you’re in the Army,” said Bohanan. “I used to joke that I was getting out of the Army just to grow my beard.”

Now a civilian graduate student in biology at East Carolina University, Bohanan is doing just that. “The beard was pretty much the most immediate expression of my personal liberty,” Bohanan said.

Such cosmetic transformations in veterans is something often seen by Dr. Stephen M. Sonnenberg, a psychiatrist and former director of the Uniformed Services Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a way of putting on a new uniform,” he said.

Some soldiers relish not only the liberated feeling, but also the shock value of their extreme makeovers. On day one of his new freedom, Joe Rollin, a 27-year-old former Army Captain from Virginia, threw away his razor. Six months later, he looked like Robinson Crusoe.

Walking to a basketball game in downtown Richmond, Va. recently, Rollin encountered passersby who speculated that he must be a drug dealer due to his shaggy appearance. And he said he was secretly delighted by the revulsion with which his mother and sister came to approach his new hairy appearance.

“The question becomes, who am I?” said Blank, a psychiatrist who has worked with veterans since Vietnam. “One of the ways we learn who we are is by the reactions of other people.”

But having undergone a jarring transformation in less than a year--from hunting improvised explosive devices in the Iraqi town of Ar Ramadi to campaigning for Barack Obama in open-toed sandals--Rollin insisted he was still the same person, just with more hair.

“For me, it isn't meant to be an expression of me redefining myself,” said Rollin. He said he changed his look simply because he finally had the chance to do so after so many years conforming.

Whatever the reasons, increasing numbers of today’s veterans are overhauling their outer image. “In Vietnam, it was all part of an anti-authoritarian movement,” Sonnenberg said, referring to thousands of draftees who returned home to join bearded protestors of the unpopular war. “It’s an association with that era,” said Sonnenberg.

Rouchka, whose father grew out his own hair after combat in Vietnam, feels that the older veterans understand exactly what he is going through.

"They love that I look like hell,” he said.

E-mail: mm3270@columbia.edu