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OOA celebrates 15 years of assisting military personnel

By Staff | May 20, 2020

Capt. John Bunch

Operation Open Arms, the widely popular network of volunteers assisting military personnel, is celebrating 15 years of devotion to U.S. military personnel.

It all began in 2005 in a local St. James City bar, when Capt. John “Giddy-Up” Bunch, a Marine veteran met U.S. Army soldier Travis Downes, who simply wanted to do some fishing. Bunch immediately offered his services as a charter captain to the soldier, at no cost, inadvertently starting what would become known as Operation Open Arms, now an immeasurably celebrated organization, as distinguished as it is known for its support and loyalty in granting assistance to any military personnel on leave.

OOA has seen such commendations as:

– Department of Defense 7 SEALS Award and Medal (2009)

– 2012 SW Florida Charitable Organization of the year

– Department of the Army Outstanding Civilian Service Medal (2016)

– Department of the Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Medal (2017)

– Lee County Honor of Distinction

– Lee County Junonia Award

– Key to the City of Fort Myers

Operation Open Arms has become Bunch’s way of supporting military troops that is, in his words, “more than slapping a sticker on the back of your car.” From vacations to full blown weddings, the volunteer run organization has had a hand in helping countless members of the U.S. military in numerous ways. Its simple mission statement: “To provide U.S. service men and women visiting Southwest Florida every conceivable benefit during their two week combat leave or return from a foreign duty station.”

Entirely run on donations, OOA is able to help provide such benefits as free limo service, lodging, restaurants, fishing charters, golf, tennis, bowling, kayaking, biking, emergency dental care and even treatment for PTSD. Many businesses continue to show their support for the troops by partnering with the organization in their own way, such as Rob Wells III from Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island.

“When John Bunch asked me to participate in this program 15 years ago,” said Wells, “I thought it was a brilliant way for us to show our appreciation to the service members who put themselves in harms way to protect our freedom. So many of us take a quick getaway for granted, but for these brave men and women, an overnight stay and a half day on the water can give them a much needed escape with their loved ones.”

Tim Jardas, whose son Thomas was a U.S. Marine corporal lost in a helicopter accident in 2016, remains grateful for the continued support and brotherhood shown by Bunch, a former Marine.

“John’s probably one of the most upstanding guys in Southwest Florida,” said Jardas. “He came to my aid when my son died. He’d been used to helping living service members, veterans,and those on active duty, so this was out of his normal routine. I was at an awards ceremony years ago when John got an award, so I had known about him for years before I lost my son. John showed up at my door the day after and he’s given me strength and comfort. He goes to Washington quite a bit and when he does, he visits my son’s grave in Arlington — that means a lot to me. He’s done a lot for the military.”

Bunch himself remains seemingly dumbfounded about the eventual significance of what seemed to be a chance meeting 15 years ago.

“How could anyone ever explain this?” said Bunch. “How one U.S. Army Soldier (Travis Downes from Pine Island) asking me where he could catch just one fish, before going back to Iraq, became the impetus of the most successful and recognized military outreach program in the United States? Operation Open Arms has awarded 4,108 U.S. troops in excess of $19.1 million in free benefits, 1,865 free fishing trips by 82 different fishing guides, 103 free weddings valued at $20K. What other organization supporting our troops has free same day mental health counseling?

“I’m not sure why, but when I ask others to help me with benefits for those who protect our freedoms, they always say yes.”

Bunch talks about how both of his parents served in World War II, and says they would undoubtedly ask him what he plans to do next, and adds that they would be right to ask that.

“Past accomplishments meant nothing to them or so they led me to believe,” said Bunch. “I’m absolutely convinced my parents would levy this observation about me. ‘He is an underachiever — never lived up to his potential.’ And you know what? They would be right. The key to the City of Ft Myers was presented to me in 2009. I’m still trying to find which doors it unlocks.”

John talks about what he sees when looking at the future of OOA, saying no individual player is ever bigger than the team. OOA, he states proudly, is made of 328 businesses and individuals. The OOA Circle of Honor can be found on its website. To find out more or donate directly to Operation Open Arms: www.operationopenarms.org