Kevin Leboeuf had no desire to leave the military, the only world he knew, and when he started the transition two years ago he felt alone and without purpose.
"You build this camaraderie and the friendship and this family basically because you trust them with your life," said Leboeuf, who left the Armed Forces after serving about 12 years, including an eight-month tour in Afghanistan.
"You feel very empty … you lose your really close friends and the relationship you had with them."
The 31-year-old, who now lives in Fredericton, was part of a team that searched for improvised explosive devices, a job he enjoyed doing to protect those around him.
When the master corporal began his transition out of the army, Leboeuf battled feelings of anger and depression that gradually slipped into his everyday life — and eventually became the "norm."
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I was terrified of the label at first," said the Montreal native. "I had a lot of shame and still [do] a little bit. "The actions that you do overseas are not really who you are, but it's very hard to formulate that into your brain because you're acting on your mission, being responsive to the scenario and to the elements that you're faced with. You don't really process what goes on, you just do what you've got to do to keep the guys alive and yourself." Today, he still gets flashbacks of war zones and sometimes when he visits a new place, he goes in with the mindset he needs to clear the area before it's safe to go inside. "You've got to un-train yourself," said Leboeuf, who wears red beads on his wrist that he touches to alleviate some of the stress. Leboeuf and his partner, Alicia Phillips, are the co-founders of Educated Beards, a Fredericton-based company that sells natural and organic premium beard-grooming products sold around the world.
Raising Red Flags During his transition from the military, he met his fiancée, Alicia Phillips, who noticed Leboeuf "had a short fuse" when it came to small tasks and loud sounds around the house. "The smallest task of him putting together a bed frame, it just didn't go perfectly, seamlessly, and the bed frame was then destroyed, fired out our front door," she said. "Things like that started to be a little bit of a red flag for me, I guess, or a wake-up call." Leboeuf said his favourite thing about his six-inch beard is how white and grey strands are becoming more visible. He has therapy twice a week, but Phillips has been an important support as he tries to conquer destructive feelings. "I want a reset button, that's basically what I'm chasing," Leboeuf said. His beard has been helping with that. Itching to grow He and Phillips have started Educated Beards, a natural beard-care line based in Fredericton. Leboeuf said the idea fell into their laps after he left the military and started growing a beard for the first time in 12 years. While growing his six-inch beard, he noticed his skin was becoming itchy, dry and flaky. One of the products from Educated Beards to help reduce dry skin. So Phillips, who comes from a holistic nutrition background, decided to make her own products to soothe his sensitive skin without harming his body. "He was coming home with products and I would read the ingredients and it just wasn't safe," she said.
Going To Great Lengths Just weeks after using the homemade beard products, Leboeuf said, people started noticing his beard becoming softer, fuller and a lot less flaky. This launched the couple into 12 months of researching oils best used for facial hair. They distributed products to friends and ended up starting the veteran-owned company, which not only provides products but educates people about the products they're using. Phillips started making her own beard-grooming products after her fiancé began transitioning out of the military and was allowed to grow a beard. The business started to grow in other areas, too, following the Canadian military's decision last fall to allow beards — as long as they're neatly trimmed and don't exceed two centimetres, or 0.78 inches. "We got a little bit overwhelmed and terrified, but at the same it was a good-terrified feeling," Leboeuf said. Clean-shaven a symbol of 'bravery' Until now, beards were allowed in the Forces only on a limited basis and solely at the discretion of the chief of the defence staff. Before the First World War, many men had long, full beards. But to properly wear gas masks and have a tight seal, soldiers had to be clean-shaven, Leboeuf said. "Men came back from war with a shaved, clean face, which gave them the image of being heroic and being brave for their country." That's all changed, Leboeuf said. Demand for the beard products has continued to grow online, in barbershops, health food stores, spas and high-end men's retails stores and will soon be in about 60 stores across the country. And with beards becoming more popular, Leboeuf and Phillips feel more men want to take the time to shape and groom their beards to a higher standard, instead of the dry "sandpaper" look.
Raising Awareness "It's not just the hippie-beard anymore, they're actually taking care of them," Leboeuf said. "The beard is so strong right now." The couple see their business as helping people and hope it will continue to grow internationally. Every morning, Laboeuf applies a bit of oil to his beard, then brushes out the strands with a boar head brush. Then he combs out his beard to get rid of the knots and tangles. He finishes off with a beard balm. (María José Burgos/CBC) Although he still struggles with PTSD, the business is one way of raising awareness and showing support for others like Leboeuf, they said. "You never have to feel alone," Phillips said. "It's not easy. It's worth it."