As a husband, father, and veteran, Dustin Gardner has packed a lot of life in 23 years. When he and business partner Jesse Phillips open their new barber shop downtown, he can also add “business owner” to that list.
February 16, 2010. After graduating from Ohio County High School with little direction and not many options, Dustin enlisted in the army and was sent to BASIC Training and infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga. It was there that he met and became good friends with fallen local hero Brandon Mullins.
After BASIC, Dustin and Brandon were sent to Alaska for a year where they joined the 125th Infantry Division and were deployed to the southern province of Afghanistan, about 2 hours south of Kandahar.
Like most veterans, Dustin doesn’t dwell on his time in combat or go into dramatic detail. He summarized it like this: “They worked us to the bone over there. I got banged up pretty good.” In reality, he was sent on 417 missions in 343 days, so you can do the math and see that a lot of those days they doubled up, sometimes doing 24 or 48-hour patrols. His definition of “banged up” meant 6 fractures in his back, a couple compressed disks, and fracturing his ankle – twice. As a result, he was placed on 70% disability and sent back to Alaska to heal up before coming back home. Having served out his minimum contract, he decided not to reenlist. It wasn’t for him.
Looking back, Gardner is proud of his time served. “In one year, we went in, completely pushed the Taliban out of that area, and they haven’t been back since. We did exactly what we were sent to do,” he said.
There were lasting effects though, both physically and mentally. Dustin began to spiral downward toward depression as he got the news that his grandfather passed, his brother was killed in a car wreck, and then Brandon was killed in combat. “Life really kicked me down for a long time there,” Dustin explained. “It was like as soon as I’d get over one thing, there would be something else.”
Meeting him now, you’d never believe the injuries he sustained and the circumstances he overcame. These days Dustin is highly motivated and completely focused on getting Riverwalk Razor off to a good start. His military background shines through in his confidence, poise, and that trademark firm handshake.
“Riverwalk Razor’s going to be the nicest, cleanest barber shop in Daviess County. Top of the line, high end clientele,” Gardner explained. Building owners Rosemary and Larry Condor completely renovated the building inside and out. With the new façade, it looks amazing. Dustin and Jesse, who is also a veteran, secured a small business loan through the VA to purchase brand new chairs, countertops, work stations, mirrors, and other equipment.
The Condors were excited to bring the young businessmen downtown. “Never in a million years could we have asked for better people to work with,” Dustin said. “We would never have been able to do this had they not done what they’ve done for us the past couple months.” In fact, to hear Dustin tell it, it was nothing less than a divine appointment.
Dustin and Jesse had their sights set on downtown from the beginning. They first looked at the space above Colby’s, but then noticed a “for lease” sign in a nearby window. When Dustin called the number on the sign it was Rosemary who answered. She just happened to be sitting at Nona’s a half a block away so she walked right over and met them. Needless to say, she was thrilled when she heard their idea.
“I found out later that when Rosemary walked back to Nona’s, she and Maria (the owner of Nona’s) prayed for our barber shop right then and there,” Dustin recalled. “Everything has just worked out great. God brought all of these things together. It’s God’s will. There’s no other explanation.”
Maybe there was a plan all along. Another interesting piece of the backstory is that Dustin had a job lined up at CSX when he returned from the Army, but when it came down to it, he was denied because of his injuries and told to wait another year to reapply. That was the slammed door that opened the window for Riverwalk Razor.
Three weeks later he enrolled in barber school, which was completely paid for by his G.I. Bill.
“I never thought about cutting hair until I met Jesse,” Dustin explained. “I’ve always been a well groomed guy, even before I was in the army. After I got back I started going to the barber shop that Jesse worked at.” The two veterans quickly realized they had a lot in common. By the time Dustin had finished barber school, he and Jesse realized they shared the same dream of opening their own barber shop and they began making plans.
Both being veterans, it’s important for Dustin and Jesse to honor all men and women of service. They proudly display a full size American flag that flew over Fallujah for a year in a shadow box on the wall. They also have plans for a “wall of honor” with a photo of every fallen soldier from Daviess County. Prominently hanging above Dustin’s station is a shadow box memorial for his old friend Brandon Mullins.
To further honor men and women in uniform, Riverwalk Razor will offer $10 haircuts for all veterans and active duty service members, including policemen, firemen, and EMTs.
Although the shop is already open and running, the grand opening is set for Monday, October 27th . Riverwalk Razor is truly on the cutting edge of downtown business revitalization, and Dustin and Jesse couldn’t be happier. “I know it’s going to be successful,” Dustin said. “Just think what downtown will be like in 10 years – and we’ll be right in the middle of it.”