You might wonder how a veteran who has never had a drink in her life is honored on the side of a whiskey bottle.
That’s understandable, because the veteran, Shirley Dominick, wonders herself about the incredible series of events that led her to create Serve Our Willing Warriors Retreat in the hills outside Haymarket.
Dominick served in the Air Force, specializing in intelligence service communications, which had her assigned to the Washington area for 15 of her 22-year military career, before retiring to Haymarket.
She attended Haymarket’s Park Valley Church, and in 2006 the pastor challenged members to create community service projects. Dominick’s group visited wounded soldiers at what was then Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Dominick said she had never experienced combat and never really liked hospitals, but went to the Malone House at Walter Reed, with 50 gift bags filled with necessities such as soap, socks and gift cards.
“Immediately after we’d arrived, all the gifts had been distributed,” Dominick remembered. “Everyone is lining up for this party, and … a girl near me, an amputee in a wheelchair, said, ‘Ma’am, there’s not more pizza, either?’ The party had just started and we were already out of gifts and food.”
Dominick said she was jolted by the need.
“It was an awakening of a group that I felt we left behind,” she added. “We were doing our 9-to-5 and realized there are so many that were hurting and wounded, and their job was appointment after appointment and when we got home, my husband said, ‘We’ve got to do more.’
Dominick said they made more visits for a number of years. During a 2011 holiday-time visit with more than 500 gift bags she was told by four different people, “Shirley, you need to start a [nonprofit] and know that I’ll be behind you.”
In 2012, Dominick went online and learned how to create a nonprofit and 30 minutes later had completed the process. Later that afternoon, she said, she got a call from Domino’s Pizza corporate headquarters saying they would like to do a fundraiser for her nonprofit, such as donating a portion of a weekend’s proceeds to her organization.
Later that year, during the first meeting of her group, a wounded warrior joined the nine other members.
About an hour into the meeting, the veteran looked around and said, “I have a vision, and I’d like to share it all if you don’t mind,” Dominick recounts to InsideNoVa. “He started talking about a house on the hill, surrounded by trees, next to a mountain, and it sits on 37 acres – and there are horses. Someone suggested we need to name this right now, and we came up with the name, Serve Our Willing Warriors, right then.”
That evening, Dominick remembers, “I tossed and turned all night.”
She got up at 4 a.m. and Googled “37 acre Virginia” and a property showed up. “I drove by that Sunday morning, and it was 4 miles – two lights – up from me. I pulled up to this house, and what scared me was four horses came right to the back fence, and I got chills.”
The house had been on the market for seven years. After buying the property in 2013, it took two years of volunteer labor from more than 1,000 individuals and in-kind donations from 120 contractors and building suppliers for the aging house to become a dedicated retreat.
On July 4, 2015, Willing Warriors opened the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run as a temporary “home-away-from-home” for recovering service members and their families. The programs and services offered at the retreat are designed to inspire the warriors as they rebuild their lives. The original small group of volunteers has grown into a coalition of individuals, small businesses, corporations, churches and other organizations throughout Northern Virginia that help to provide services.
A second home has been built on the property and the organization is working to add a third, with a focus on training veterans on post-traumatic stress.
“For the past four years we’ve been bringing in groups for weeklong PTS training sessions, and [this] allows them to realize that the world is not better without them – we still need them,” Dominick said. “I just believe certain things are designed to be.”
Willing Warriors’ executive director applied for a $5,000 grant with the Evan Williams American-Made Heroes Foundation Fund last year, and the group received the check at a presentation ceremony last month. The money will fund two weeklong warrior visits.
Julie Cole, a senior brand manager for Evan Williams bourbon, said the company is proud to celebrate stories of military veterans like Dominick for their selfless acts at home and abroad.
The foundation’s purpose is not only to provide a platform for sharing veterans’ inspiring stories, but also to raise public awareness for causes affecting the veteran community and support nonprofit organizations that help veterans and their families, Cole said.
Along with the grant, Dominick is featured on the side of limited-edition bottles of Evan Williams Bourbon, with the title “American-Made Heroes” and her face and story of veteran philanthropy on the bottle.
“For my 10 siblings to see my face on a bourbon bottle, they find that pretty humorous,” Dominick chuckled. “God has a sense of humor.”