Operation Open Arms founder receives Navy Distinguished Public Service Medal
Captain John “GiddyUp” Bunch is amassing a collection of honorary hardware.
The founder of Operation Open Arms and Marine veteran received the Navy Distinguished Public Service Medal Friday, and the U.S. Army Outstanding Civilian Service Award in Washington, D.C., in 2016. He also received a Key to the City of Fort Myers in 2011, the Department of Defense 7 SEALS Medal, the Lee County Honor of Distinction and Junonia Award, and the list goes on.
But the reason Bunch is selected for these honors is clear: he has dedicated his life to helping veterans and combat military servicemembers.
“Only when you have walked in the shoes of another and seen life through their eyes can we understand the hardships and challenges of our military families,” Bunch said.
The beginnings of Operation Open Arms started in 2005, “by complete accident,” he said. An army soldier asked Bunch where he could go to catch a fish before returning to Iraq, so Bunch took him fishing. Bunch, who was a fishing guide in Pine Island, began to do more work like this and officially incorporated the organization in 2009.
Since then, the all-volunteer nonprofit organization has grown exponentially to provide same-day PTSD counseling, all-expenses-paid R&R vacations for active military, wedding and funeral assistance, and more. With the help of community partnerships and a board of volunteers, Bunch has assisted 3,718 – and counting – service men and women. Many businesses on Fort Myers Beach are part of his community network.
“The level of recognition by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps and importance would have thrilled my parents,” Bunch said. “Both served during WWII. They would probably say, ‘so what are you going to do next and when?'”
Twenty-seven people have received the Navy medal since 1951, including the likes of Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and George Halas.
Traditionally this medal would be presented to Bunch in Washington, D.C., however, it was most appropriately presented on Fort Myers Beach at Matanzas on the Bay.
The bayside restaurant has partnered with Operation Open Arms many times in the past to host its events, such as Wine on the Waterfront and Bluegrass, Brews and BBQ, and to host the combat military men and women who come to Fort Myers Beach as part of Operation Open Arm’s R&R program.
“It’s a good group to be involved with,” said Tony Coppolino, the general manager. “He does a lot of good for the soldiers, and this is the best way we can participate.”
Bunch was unable to attend the medal ceremony. His home is still suffering damage from Hurricane Irma.
Douglas Suter, a board member, acted as proxy for Bunch and received the metal of honor from U.S. Representative Francis Rooney.
“John is the guy,” Suter said. “But most importantly, it’s all of the individuals and business owners of southwest Florida, it’s why we’d rather have the award here than the Pentagon.”
Bunch has always prided the organization with never having to solicit donations by sending out requests on any platform; rather, donations have been given to him by individuals and businesses and events. The organization does not pay out a salary and averages about $30,000 a year. But, Bunch said Operation Open Arms “must join the 21st Century.” As he looks toward the future, Bunch said it’s time for the organization to have its own office space, instead of being run out of his home, and start having employees to provide the best possible service to the veterans and military members it is there for.
“Who is going to do all of this when God calls on me to be His personal fishing guide?” Bunch said. “Never in my wildest dreams could anyone imagine 3,718 (helped). Fishing, hotels, restaurants, golf, weddings, same day PTSD mental health counseling. All free to those who risk their lives for us.”