OREGON – As big-band music swells from speakers overhead, Erin Dietrich – decked out in a bright green cardigan and a red bandana folded over her hair in a style reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter – sits comfortably in a barber chair.
It’s the same one she stands behind each day as she earns a living clipper-cutting those who walk through the door of her business, Patriot Barber Shop in downtown Oregon.
Dozens of photos adorning the walls shed light on how she got the name of the barbershop she bought and began operating three years ago. Some are of family members, and others are of clients. Still others are family members of clients. All are veterans.
So is Dietrich. An Army veteran who served from 1999 to 2004 during the Global War on Terror, she was deployed to Kosovo and later to Afghanistan just months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. During her service, she served as a military police guard, gunner, driver and paratrooper.
She talks about her time in the military and with great respect for the women with whom she served, as well as others she has met in the years since. She’s featured alongside some of those women as part of the Harlem Veteran Project, an ongoing documentary project in which veterans talk about their military service, the hardships and highlights.
“And by the way, there is a huge group of amazing women out there that have served,” she said.
The documentary, “Take Your Own Notes,” was shot starting in 2019 and debuted this year at the Beloit International Film Festival. The 90-minute documentary demonstrates how five women, including Dietrich, “make an impact in their families and local communities and connect with each other through their shared experiences in the United States military,” according to the Beloit International Film Festival website.
“Take Your Own Notes” provides an outlet for women who experience challenges featured in the documentary, cultivating an open dialogue for those who wish to tell their stories, which include discussion of domestic abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual assault, suicide and other topics that may be sensitive to the viewer, according to the website.
As she praised others’ time in the military during a recent interview with Shaw Local News Network, she humbly talked about her own time in the Army, which she said she decided to join when she was a teenager living in Mount Morris and attending Oregon High School.
Her grandfather and uncles had served in the military. Her older brother, Stuart, also would join the military and later retire from the service, she said.
“I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything different,” she said. “I knew academia wasn’t going to be my thing. I was very athletic and thought I’d love to serve my country. To me, that just sounded amazing.”
She was a sophomore in high school when she visited an Army recruiter.
“There was just no options; there was nothing else I felt strong about,” she said. “For me, it made sense. It was going to get me out in the world and get me a career path, and give me an opportunity to travel, and would give me an opportunity to afford college if I ever should decide to go. There was just a lot of opportunity. On-the-job training. Pride, of course, like serving your country. Nobody pushed me. I just felt it.”
She graduated from Oregon High School in 1999. Then it was off to basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She was trained as a military police officer. After that, she was recruited to attend airborne school for three weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“They come to your basic training and they give their spiel, and then they say, ‘Is there anybody interested in signing up?’ They take the top [physical fitness] scores, and they pick the best out of your platoon,” she said.
It was on to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, now Fort Liberty, after airborne school. She was assigned to the 108th Military Police Company. Her company was combat deployable.
“I went Kosovo and then Kandahar, Afghanistan,” she said. “Kosovo was in active conflict at the time, but I didn’t see anything crazy.”
She was sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in February 2002.
“That was wild,” she said “We took over for the Marine Corps. We were the first company on the ground. So, it was pretty new. We took over the detention facility there in Kandahar. So we were processing prisoners, guarding prisoners. We got mortared daily, but it’s not quite as terrifying as you would think. If that makes any kind of sense.”
She said soldiers do become hypersensitized to the sound of mortar fire, “but I think it’s because other people are going through the same walk you are. It doesn’t feel, like, bad because we’ve got ways to deal with it.”
By November 2002, she was back in the states and able to take a few weeks of leave back home.
“I was the kid that didn’t call home,” she said. “I just was busy and doing my job. Was just living my life doing my thing. Very independent. I didn’t even consider what my folks were going through.”
Sent back to Fort Bragg, she taught the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program for two years to fifth graders attending school on the post.
“They had quite a few schools on post,” she said. “Those kids were so sweet.”
When she left the military in 2004 after five years of service, she was married to a man she had met in the military, moved to Texas and had a son. The couple later divorced, and she moved back to Oregon.
She married again and had two more children. After that marriage ended, she moved in with her parents. It was 2019, and she was at a crossroads in her life, unsure how to move forward, she said.
“And I’m sitting with my dad in his office,” she said.
She remembered asking him what she should do.
She had thought about cleaning homes but then recalled a conversation she had a year earlier with her dad’s barber. She had brought her sons there for haircuts when the barber revealed that she wanted to retire. The barber told Dietrich that she could be a good barber if she wanted to go to school for it.
“‘You should do this,” Dietrich remembers the barber saying. “You’d be great at it.”
After telling her dad about that conversation, he replied, “I think if I were you, I’d pick up the phone.”
The barber still was working and still ready to retire. Dietrich decided to go to barber school in Rockford.
Ten months later and after passing her state board exam, she was ready to become a working barber. She bought the barbershop and was able to work alongside the barber from whom she had purchased the business, which Dietrich renamed Patriot Barber Shop.
It’s been three years since she opened the doors, and through all of them, she has continued to honor the veterans who walk into her shop – those with whom she served and those in her family – with an ever-growing number of veterans’ photos on her walls. She is not sure the exact number of 8-by-10s on the walls, but she said it has to be more than 70.
“If you look at these walls, look at these faces, that’s just a tiny amount of the people who have served,” she said.
She plans to keep adding and will adjust items throughout the shop to make more wall space.
“I’ll just keep adding faces so that it can just keep going,” she said. “There’s always going to be room.”