Each barber station at the V’s Barber shop on Indian School and 48th Street in Arcadia features a laminated piece of paper outlining the biography of the employee who works there.
The one belonging to the bubbly Scottsdale resident Romina Brumbaugh stands out from the rest.
She was born Romina Brushkoeva in Kyrgyzstan, a former territory of the Soviet Union with a population of six million and a yearly average wage of $251.
“It was not easy, but it was my life. I remember times when we didn’t have nothing and we [would] just fry onion in oil,” Romina said. “We had meat only on holidays.”
Romina said that for a family in Kyrgyzstan, getting a cake feels like getting a Mercedes.
Once she finished school and spent a few years working excruciatingly long hours as a barber for hardly any pay, she grew frustrated.
Things reached a breaking point in 2009, when, at age 21, she was hospitalized with an illness in a dilapidated, outdated room with no money.
“I was asking God, ‘Please let me leave and go somewhere and make some money,” she said.
While still recovering, bedridden and desperate, she got a call from a friend who asked if she would like to make good money cutting hair in Afghanistan.
Anxious to leave, she accepted the job offer immediately without asking questions, and flew to Afghanistan two days later.
Unbeknownst to her, Romina had accepted a position with a company contracted by the United States military to provide barbers for U.S. service members stationed on bases in combat zones.
She had been so cut off from world news in her homeland that she had no idea that a war was raging there.
“When I landed at the airport in Kabul, my manager gave me a helmet and armor and I asked her why do I need that?” said Romina. “She said, ‘what do you mean why? You are in a war.’ I was very shocked.”
Going home was not an option. Romina’s employer floated the cost of training, travel and armor. If she left before her contract was complete, she would be liable for those expenses.
“I was crying every night after my haircuts. I could not sleep because it was so tough for me. I didn’t understand [English], my haircuts were horrible, my manager was not happy,” she said. “But I made it 11 months.”
After about a year back in Kyrgyzstan, she again grew eager to make a decent wage.
Things didn’t go as planned.
Under the terms of her contract, Romina was paid no hourly wage and was given none of the $5.25 soldiers paid for her haircuts. She relied entirely on tips for her income.
For this reason, when she returned to Afghanistan in 2012, she was nervous when she heard that her new base in Tarin Kwot had a bad reputation for slow business and bad tips.
Her fears were confirmed. After a few months of sparse earnings, she gathered what little cash she had to pay the lofty $25-for-30-minutes price to call and plead with her mother back home.
“I was so sad. I think I spent $50 talking to her. I asked ‘Why did God send me here? I don’t make money, I am lonely.’ She told me everything happens for a reason,” Romina recalled.
Within days of this desperate conversation, Romina found her reason.
A combination of family problems, a failing romantic relationship and a crashing economy drove Clint Brumbaugh to leave his home in Phoenix to work as a privately contracted heavy wheel mechanic in Afghanistan in 2007.
“At the time, there was a lot going on. I wanted to get away and make a change,” Brumbaugh said.
Romina was instantly struck by Clint when he walked into her shop in late 2012.
“I gave him a one-and-a-half-hour-long haircut because I didn’t want to let him go. But he didn’t ask for my number and he only gave me a $7 tip!” she said.
Romina figured he was too shy to make the first move. For the next three weeks, she did her makeup and hair carefully and scoured the bases few hangout spots at all hours in search of Clint — but to no avail.
One day, after she had given up her search, Clint came back to see her at the shop.
“I still remember what he said, it was: ‘Can you make me handsome again?’ I didn’t know what handsome means!” said Romina.
This time Clint got her number and asked her out for a date.
“We laughed all night long. After, I knew that I wanted to marry him.” Romina said.
After that night, everything changed. For the next year, Romina and Clint were inseparable.
They spent all their precious free time together. Both worked 12 hours a day. Romina had one day a week off, Clint had none.
Life on the base was routine enough to allow for romance. But while the constant sounds of distant gunfire and mortar explosions were relatively easy to tune out, occasionally the conflict came far too close for comfort.
About a year or so after they met, Romina was moved to another base.
At her new base, Romina had a bunk in a room shared with many of her co-workers. Cellphones were not allowed, so to stay in touch with Clint she had to hide one in her sock. Every night she would sneak away to the same port-a-potty near her barber shop to talk to Clint.
One night, as the time of their usual phone call was approaching, a crowd of local civilian customers filed into her barber shop. As Romina was cursing her bad luck at the ill-timed rush, a rocket exploded outside, blowing a hole in the side of the shop.
No one was injured, though military investigators told her that the rocket had only partially exploded, and that had it worked properly, things would have turned out different.
When it became clear that the war was winding down, Clint proposed and Romina happily accepted.
Today, Romina cuts hair at V’s Barber Shop in Arcadia, where she works a mere 40 hours a week and earns exponentially more money than she ever did in Kyrgyzstan or Afghanistan.
She and Clint live together in the Old Town condo Clint purchased to be his post-war bachelor pad. While this was a future Clint could have never imagined, Romina seems to have suspected it her whole life.
“I used to tell everybody I would get married to an American guy,” said Romina. “My mom told me, ‘you’re not born for here.’ I was always reaching for something.”