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Airman overcomes alopecia journey by motivating others to be resilient

  • Published
  • By Chrissy Cuttita,
  • Air Force Recruiting Service Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas-- Guilt, shame, denial, and acceptance are all words one civilian Airman uses to describe his journey with alopecia.

At the same time Charles Lyles was stepping into a new position with the 348th Recruiting Squadron in August 2018, he was also preparing his mind to step out in letting people know about the diagnosis he struggled with for over a decade.

During the Summer 2006, the office administrator was given a new word to describe his look, alopecia. A few months before the official diagnosis Lyles remembers a shocking and embarrassing moment where his wife, Kiyiana, pointed out he was losing his hair in places.

After the doctors confirmed what was happening, Lyles entered a “why me” mentality he battled with internally.

“I was confused because I never heard of it before and I was embarrassed because I got it,” he said.

Eventually Lyles decided to flip the mindset script and gain a more resilient posture with the help of a community of like-baldness friends he opened himself up to in an alopecia support group.

“Four years ago, I made the decision to let this take my life and rid me of happiness or move on and it’ll just come along with me,” Lyles said.  “That was that defining moment resiliency came on. After 12 years I was sick and tired of hiding, sick and tired of being in guilt, sick and tired of the shame and I just made the decision this is what I’m going to do.”

He said first action was to take accountability in his mind.

“My 12-year journey happened because I wasn’t being strong enough, said Lyles. “I was worried about other people’s perception of what they would see of me. It took me some time to get my mind together and know If this is what I’m going to do, I have to be ready to accept anything and everything that comes my way.  Also, looking to myself, I had to ask if I was willing to do this.”

For Lyles, resiliency means overcoming, something he only recently really feels confident he can do. With the help of a support group, he became a motivational speaker and got the inspiration to write a book. Using the skills, he picked up in his recent degree in Communication, Lyles penned what he described as “a powerful yet uplifting message on redemption for the unheard (men in particular).”

His flight chief, Master Sgt. Mary Schroeder, 348th RCS C Flight, said in her career experience she has seen how hair loss has made the men she served with lose confidence.

“When Charles invited me to come to the book signing and hear not only his story but others in the support group, it was really powerful,” she said.  

Lyles said he purposely took a part time job at a hotel in April 2021 just to have the opportunity to overcome the fear of being in public and engaging with people. That is how he said he pushed himself to talk to others, to put himself on display. 

Now he shares his story with recruiters despite previous fear and doubt. Lyles hopes his candidness will help mentor and uplift others, so they don’t have the same journey he did worried how he felt he was looked upon differently or as an outcast.

“One thing I’ve always stood on in my condition was acceptance,” he said.  “That was the one thing I had to realize. I had to stop living in denial. I had to stop treating it like it could go away.”

Even if they are not facing hair loss, Lyles likes to give advice to others who feel stressed about situations.  Particularly with recruiters, he offers specific mindset advice to help them be resilient.

“I’ve noticed with recruiters I work with they feel stress to make goal, but I encourage them not to over think it, not to let it consume their mind,” he said. “That’s one of the things I took from being military. At boot camp they were training our mindset how to be resilient.”

Although Lyles served in the Navy, the training to support one another at sea is a shared experience all military members can relate to, that feeling your life depends on others and they depend on you.

“Get out of the mindset of stressing and thinking that you’re not going to achieve,” he advised. “You can but you have to basically not get so consumed with the outside things that come along, the distractions we all have.”

Lyles is looking forward to connecting more to others as he continues to walk in the shoes of someone who has alopecia and is overcoming.

“We are striving to let people know they are not alone,” he said about his support group which helped him feel at home since the first moment he walked into the room where there were others like him.

“I know that Charles is not alone, and I’ve seen it for myself in the Air Force,” said Schroeder. “He is just that push to spread awareness. I think it is important for others to hear his story, learn what was going on because you never know with resiliency where that motivation is going to come from.”

For Lyles, safe havens are important. He said he needed to be able to step forward to say he had it so others, particularly men, share their condition also.  

“It may be cliché but it speaks volumes ‘a closed mouth doesn’t get fed,’” he said. “We can’t help unless they step up and speak. I’m a prime example of that. Had I not stepped up I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”