A Maryland couple with 27 years combined military service in the U.S. Army received a special surprise at Ford's Fish Shack in Leesburg April 10.
Justin James and Noor Merchant thought they were arriving for a final “interview” with the Loudoun is for Lovers wedding giveaway team, but they instead were delivered news they have been selected as this year's recipient of a more than $60,000 wedding in Loudoun County.
“I'm still in shock,” said Merchant, with her fiancee James and nine-month-old daughter Rory by her side.
The Loudoun is for Lovers project was launched last spring when Robert Holley, a Loudoun-based photographer, decided he wanted to do something to give back to the community and came up with the idea to offer free wedding photography for a military couple.
He mentioned the idea at a Visit Loudoun meeting with other wedding professionals, and within 10 minutes he had enough support to offer an entire wedding package giveaway.
“It's amazing. The business community is amazing and the generosity blew me away,” Holley said.
One essay in particular – from Merchant and James – drew the attention of all the judges.
“There were a lot of submissions, and their essay really spoke to us,” said Amy Thunell, who will serve as the wedding coordinator.
In the essay, Merchant describes the couple's first date and James' work while he was deployed in Afghanistan.
“I felt a jolt of joy that you only experience when you know you’re falling in love. That night gave me a glimpse into the Justin that nobody else was allowed to see but me," Merchant wrote. "He’s truly an amazing man: he’s funny, sarcastic, kind, generous, loving, hardworking, and incredibly selfless. He exhibits these characteristics in everything he does. As a company commander in Korea, Justin arranged for him and his Soldiers to teach English at a local middle school that didn’t have the funding to hire English teachers. Also, during his first deployment to Afghanistan, Justin’s platoon helped develop infrastructure by building schools and mosques. One day, while driving from the school construction site, his convoy got hit by an IED. Justin rushed to administer first aid to his injured Soldiers until the medical evacuation team arrived. For his leadership and mission success, he earned a bronze star.”
Merchant is also an Army officer. She graduated from West Point and commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant. She was deployed in Afghanistan for 16 months, leading a civil affairs operation.
“We are both proud to serve our nation and make the sacrifices necessary to protect and defend,” Merchant said.
Their decision to have a baby before getting married was in part because they are in their mid-30s. After a few attempts and pregnancy complications, their daughter was born July 5 last year.
Merchant wrote, “The wedding plans that we had once discussed got shelved as our daughter’s needs took priority. While I don’t for a second regret the decision to spend our financial resources on a home that would be suitable for her to grow up in or providing her with the necessary tools for her development, a part of me still wants to celebrate my love in front of family and friends and have wedding memories to cherish. We have sacrificed for our country and now we are giving everything we have towards raising our amazing baby girl. Unfortunately, this means we don’t have the time or money available to fund a wedding. After our journey together, I believe Justin and I would cherish the opportunity and recognize the magnanimity of being gifted a beautiful and stress-free wedding - one where we can relax and celebrate our life and love, while surrounded by those we love."
The Loudoun-centric event will be held Nov. 17 at Kalero Vineyards in Hillsboro, which has donated the venue to host the wedding for up to 100 guests, including three bridesmaids, three groomsmen, one flower girl and one ring bearer.
Also participating is Ford's Fish Shack, which will provide the catering services at the wedding reception. Round Hill-based Savoir Fare will provide catering for the rehearsal dinner, Pure Perfection will cater appetizers and desserts and Sweetz Bakery will make the wedding cake.
Jake Ritchie from Dream Day DJs will provide the music, and Michael Stump from Tip Top Photobooths will be on site with a photo booth. The wedding dress – up to $1,200 value – is being provided by The Valley Bride.
Additionally, Rosanna Smith of Bella Villa Antiques & Vintage Rentals will be assisting with the wedding décor. Salon Montage in Leesburg will take care of the wedding party's hair and makeup, and Point-to-Point Limo will do the transportation. Cathleen Titcomb of Curious Fox Press will create custom wedding invitations, and Holley will be the photographer. Flowers will be provided by Rick's Flowers, and the officiant will be Donna Ruland of Any Time, Any Place Marriages. Virginia Picnic Basket Company is donating a picnic basket to enjoy while getting ready for the ceremony. Other participants include Flags of Valor, Cork and Keg Tours, Big Rock Studio graphic design, Gallop Web Services, Old 690 Brewing Company, 868 Estate Vineyards and Hidden View B&B.
Holley and Smith said they are hoping this will become an annual event.
“It's a wonderful cause. It is hard to find ways to express your gratitude for the sacrifice the military makes for us and I think it's awesome we are able to make a memorable celebration of love. This is all about the joy of celebrating love,” said Smith.