- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

HAYMARKET, Va. (AP) - In the wooded hills of Prince William County, an unlikely oasis has arisen for wounded American soldiers and their families. Away from drab hospital rooms and rehab centers and cafeteria food, the Bull Run Warrior Retreat allows veterans and their families to go fishing, play games, visit local landmarks - or sit on a porch, gaze at the Bull Run Mountains and do nothing.

The fully handicapped-accessible retreat, which officially opened Wednesday, just in time for Veterans Day, is the brainchild of John and Shirley Dominick, a Haymarket couple who had been visiting and feeding troops at Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir hospitals for years but wanted to do more. Now they have a three-story home with five bedrooms, an elevator, a full-time caregiver, a professional-grade kitchen, and plans to build a pond, a hiking trail and three additional cottages to house more visiting families on the 37-acre property outside Haymarket.

“It was amazing,” said Lanell Osinga of Fredericksburg, whose husband, Chad, had been recovering at Fort Belvoir from hip, shoulder and traumatic brain injuries suffered in Iraq. The Osingas and their four children spent a week at the retreat in August, as one of nine test groups, and were treated to a fly-fishing excursion, a Civil War battlefield tour and a free professional family photo shoot.

“It was a blessing to us,” Osinga said. “Just driving up to it is absolutely beautiful. They didn’t even know us, but they just kept loving us and saying ‘Thank you’ to us. We felt like, ‘No, thank you.’?”

Virtually everything the Osingas enjoyed was donated: an estimated $1 million in labor and materials to completely gut and renovate the 11,000-square-foot house and surrounding grounds, provided by more than 1,000 volunteers, as well as the architectural plans, the food and numerous recreational offerings. All by people who were looking for a way to say “Thank you” to the country’s veterans, Shirley Dominick said.

Visiting the troops at Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir started out as a community-service project for the Dominicks at their church, Park Valley Church in Haymarket. After each visit, “you leave with this heaviness,” Shirley Dominick said. The youthfulness of the soldiers, the desperation of the parents and spouses - it was a huge eye-opener for me,” she said.

Driving back to Haymarket, the Dominicks asked themselves, “What kind of service could we provide that could be a little more substantial?” John Dominick said. So in 2012, they launched the nonprofit organization Serve Our Willing Warriors, which at first intended to help veterans connect with services and jobs. Then they met a Marine veteran, wounded in Iraq, who told them of his vision for a retreat, a place away from the hospitals and the bureaucracy.

Soon, Shirley Dominick found the property for sale just west of Route 15, with a deteriorating six-bedroom house inhabited by renters.

The nonprofit bought the property in 2013, and the Dominicks planned to renovate the house piece-by-piece. They had begun with one of the bedrooms and were holding regular fundraisers when they met contractor David Baird, who was looking for a veterans-related project. His father fought in World War II.

Baird told the Dominicks that the entire house needed to be gutted and retrofitted with wide doors and entryways for wheelchairs. He found an architect also looking for a veterans project, W.C. Ralston of Chantilly, and then began contacting various subcontractors with an e-mail titled “Put your patriotic money where your mouth is.”

The word spread. Electricians, construction workers, plumbers, landscapers - all donated materials and time. Three full kitchens were built, with a commercial range and refrigerator donated by General Electric. A retired soldier, Miles Carlson, single-handedly did much of the demolition work, Baird said. Furniture, electronics, games, workout equipment were all donated by local businesses.

“Everything we’ve ever wanted for this house has been given to us,” Shirley Dominick said. Of the money and goods that were donated to Serve Our Willing Warriors, an audit found that 92 percent was spent on the retreat and only 8 percent on administrative costs.

The Prince William community stepped up, too. People would just show up at the property, wanting to help.

A couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary helped build a ramp for the handicapped. Girl Scouts built gardens and hung bird feeders. Boy Scouts built fire pits and other projects. Younger Scouts made pillows and signs to decorate the house.

One framed hand-painted sign reads: “My name is Jacob. I’m 11 years old. I’m glad your OK from the war you fought in. Thank you for your service.”

One family at a time can stay at the retreat for up to a week. They can stay on the property and relax or take trips for shopping, sightseeing or recreation, with all costs covered by the nonprofit group.

After a ribbon-cutting on the Fourth of July attended by more than 1,000 people, more donations came in. Starbucks said it would provide all the coffee for the retreat. American Disposal Services said it would remove all trash for free. Chefs from across the area are donating time and food to cook for the families. The retreat has already received enough food for a Thanksgiving dinner for 40 soldiers whose families won’t be with them for the holiday.

“People call it luck,” John Dominick said. “We call it God. It’s got God’s handprint all over it.”

Last month, Angela Spraul and her two young children from Florida gathered with family members from South Carolina, California and Wyoming at the retreat, the first time they had been together since the death of her husband, a Navy officer who served in the Middle East.

“We had big family dinners, we barbecued outside - it’s perfect,” she said. “We were really able to come together as a family.”

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