OOA Helps Louisiana Serviceman with Free Beach Wedding

From the News-Press, June 21 2011

Dressed in his military uniform, Sgt. Jerry Mitchell kissed his bride, holding her as the Gulf waves rolled in behind them.

The couple’s three boys — 8, 3 and 2 — dug in the sand beside them, while their daughter, 5-year-old Cheyenne, quietly watched.

Mitchell, 32, and Crystal Dukes, 25, were finally married.

Mitchell and Dukes drove almost 1,000 miles from Hessmer, La., to exchange wedding vows on Fort Myers Beach behind the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Spa.

The entire wedding — from cake to the couple’s hotel stay — was paid for by Operation Open Arms, a local nonprofit that extends benefits to military service members.

It was the 81st wedding the nonprofit has organized, each made possible with donations.

Dukes found the group on the Internet, and just hours after she emailed founder Capt. John Bunch, the wedding was in the works.

“He had my cake, he had flowers, he had our hotel,” Dukes said. “I couldn’t call him right away. I was crying.”

Mitchell and Dukes have been together almost five years. They planned to marry last year, but had to put it off when Mitchell was called to respond to the BP oil spill disaster off Louisiana’s coast.

Mitchell, who has served with the National Guard for six years, will leave for Afghanistan in November — his first deployment.

“I say to myself, it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be all right,” Dukes said. “It’s going to be hard on (the kids). It’s going to be very hard on me but I’m going to have them (here).”

Meanwhile, the St. James City-based organization tried to make life a bit easier on the family Tuesday.

“I was kind of overwhelmed with everything,” Mitchell said.

“I wasn’t really expecting this much for it.”

After the two exchanged their vows, the family each took a small vase of colored sand and added it to a larger vase — a symbol of their unity.

The family placed their hands on the vase as Chaplain Larry Ager said a prayer.

Bunch, who served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 1975, says helping fellow service members is something he has to do — and he enjoys it.

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