This past Monday marked a special occasion for a young Lee County couple on Fort Myers Beach. A U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant married his girlfriend in a beachfront wedding at the Pink Shell Resort.
Operation Open Arms Capt. John "Giddy-up" Bunch -noted wedding planner these days- arranged the wedding, but it was the way many businesses on Fort Myers Beach and around Lee County came together to provide free services to make the wedding extra special and complete.
Besides Pink Shell, several other businesses poured out their hearts and services by lining up in a "call of duty" to contribute to the cause. The local Marine, who has served two tours already overseas, will be deploying for a third tour to Afghanistan in April.
Operation Open Arms planned its 77th military wedding since 2005, according to founder Capt. John “Giddy-Up” Bunch. Pictured is a young Marine getting married to his girlfriend at the Pink Shell on Fort Myers Beach.
Bunch said all businesses that participated in this event received an Operation Open Arms Special Medallion for their significant contributions to the charitable organization.
Here is a list of the free contributions that the bride and groom received during and after the military wedding:
n Pink Shell donated their beach property, chairs and archway for the wedding ceremony set-up. Dony Lubig, Pink Shell's wedding planner for this particular occasion, said: "We want to say thank you for his service to our country. We want to make sure they have a beautiful service.";
n Libbey's Flowers provided the bouquet and a boutonnire for the bride and groom. Owners Muffy and Greg Sander said: "We feel like we can contribute something because it is in support of our troops.";
n Fort Myers Photographer Valarie Hoffman of Valarie Hoffman Photography took photos at the wedding and the reception, processed a variety of prints for the bride and groom, created a slide show that will be set to music and supplied an email link so that the bride's overseas family (which is unable to attend the wedding) can view website photos of the special evening. (The bride did have three cousins drive over from the east coast of Florida. One cousin served as her father and gave her away at the ceremony.);
n Beach Musician Steve Farst played acoustic guitar songs during the processional and recessional parts of the wedding. Farst said: "We are always presented with information about wanting to support the troops and to take direct actions with the military. This is one of those chances and a great way to support in a direct way."
n Limousine Driver Nestor Barreiro of 1st Class Limousine in Fort Myers took the newlyweds from Pink Shell to Parrot Key Caribbean Grill then to Tween Waters Resort on Captiva Island.;
n While at Parrot Key, the couple and eight other guests enjoyed a reception dinner for 10 people after the wedding.;
n Navy veteran Chuck Wininger picked up the wedding cake from Extreme Cake Shop in Fort Myers and delivered it to Parrot Key. He also presented the OOA medallions to the businesses at the reception.;
n 'tween Waters Inn offered two nights of accommodations;
n Silver Sands Resort on Fort Myers Beach provided a one-night stay after the Captiva portion of the honeymoon. Owner Andrea Groves said: "The military is very important to me and my heart. The least we can do is provide them a nice wedding and honeymoon for all their service."
The local Marine is the son of a retired Lt. Army Colonel who served in the Gulf War. His wife said she was fighting back tears after the chain of offerings continued to grow.
"The outpouring patriotism and support from this community for an active military person that they do not even know is truly, truly amazing. It's a true testament of this Lee County community and these businesses," she said. "I just made one phone call, and I couldn't believe how quickly people just stepped up to the plate. Donating their time and talent, as little as they think it might be, is amazing for someone who is putting his life on the line for his country."
The phone call to Lubig is what started the heartfelt outpouring.
"Once I connected with Dony, she kept calling me back to ask me if I had flowers and other needs," she said. "It was overwhelming. I was constantly fighting back tears. He will have some great memories to take with him to inspire him to come back."
For security reasons, the names of the bride and groom and family members were not disclosed and the photo of the wedding was "skewed" as to not reveal identities.
According to its website, Operation Open Arms is a nationally acclaimed military outreach program which was founded in 2005 with a simple mission statement: "To provide US Servicemen/women visiting Southwest Florida or the Eastern Shore of Maryland every conceivable benefit during their two-week combat leave or return from any foreign duty station."
OOA has been designated a 501(c)(3) charity by the IRS and all donations are tax deductible. It provides extraordinary benefits such as free limo service, lodging, restaurants, fishing charters, golf, tennis, bowling, kayaking, biking, emergency dental care, and other health care.
Bunch, who served in the Marine Corps, noted the self-administering program is "facing serious challenges" during these tough economical times. If interested in contributing, go to www.operationopenarms.com.
"To provide this outstanding level of service to US Troops, OOA must be sustained by tax deductible donations and new sponsors (more restaurants/ hotels/ condos/ fishing guides/ parasailing). It should be clear no one associated with Operation Open Arms enjoys a salary or benefits," said Bunch.
Bunch still takes pride in setting up weddings for military personnel.
"Planning this wedding has been an honor. US Troops on their combat leave have one favorite destination: Fort Myers Beach," said Bunch. "The Silver Sands Resort was the first resort to offer free lodging to Our Troops. Andrea and Tom have extended a level of kindness that can only be described as truly extraordinary. The same applies to Diamondhead Resort, The Pink Shell and, of course, Salty Sams/Parrot Key."
The local Marine's family is appreciative of the effort put forth by Bunch and OOA.
"Capt. John Bunch is the best wedding planner. He should win some sort of award," said the groom's stepmother. "He's kind of a one-man band. We give money to other agencies whose folks get paid a salary. John does this for free."