Laura Ruane, email@example.com 12:27 p.m. EDT May 2, 2014
Five years after graduating Naples’ Gulf Coast High School and enlisting in the Marine Corps, Jonathan Carnes is back in Southwest Florida on a vacation he’d long dreamed of.
The itinerary features multiple fishing trips — including the Ding Darling & Doc Ford Tarpon Tournament — and kicking back on Sanibel and Captiva islands, reuniting with friends and making new ones.
After two tough years of surgeries and rehab, it’s shaping up to be a sweet getaway for 23-year-old Carnes, whose right leg was amputated after a 2011 improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan.
“I never thought I’d would have live long enough to see it. This is pretty amazing,” Carnes said. The Purple Heart recipient was surrounded by media at Southwest Florida International shortly after his flight from Washington, D.C.
The five-day vacation comes free to Carnes, courtesy of Operation Open Arms, a nonprofit outreach program for military men and women founded nine years ago by a Lee County fishing guide.
Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch, former Marine and the charity’s founder, said Carnes is the 2,908th service person to benefit. It started by cobbling together free U.S. vacations for active-duty military folks on leave from out-of-country postings. The program now includes Maryland, where Bunch also has a home.
Operation Open Arms — through businesses and other sponsors — has provided an estimated $11.2 million in benefits to U.S. service people, including 99 free wedding/honeymoon packages each valued at about $18,000.
On average, an Open Arms stay costs about $3,500 and includes air fare, lodging, golf and fishing charters and restaurant meals.
More than a half-dozen businesses and other local organizations are donating services or cash to cover Carnes’ vacation costs.
“We think being out on the water and fishing is so therapeutic,” said John Jensen. He and his brothers own Jensen’s Twin Palms Cottages & Marina on Captiva that’s putting up Carnes for part of his stay.
Operation Open Arms is honoring its vacation promise to Carnes, made about a year ago and shortly before it shifted away from being exclusively in what Bunch calls “the vacation business.”
“We are still doing vacations, but with an emphasis of helping those encountering post-traumatic stress disorder,” Bunch said. The vacation is “the carrot” to get struggling service people and recent veterans to seek care.
He wrote on the operationopenarms.org website: “The Department of Defense recently made a startling disclosure. More U.S. troops are taking their own lives than our enemy. … Our charity is now in the life-saving business.”
Those who seek treatment through Open Arms’ connections with mental health professionals won’t be asked even for insurance co-pays. “This will not show up in their service record. They can be assured of total anonymity,” Bunch said.
After his vacation, former Marine Cpl. Carnes will return to a job as an estimator for a fire sprinkler company.
But in a year or so, he’d like to open a gun shop and shooting range either here or in Virginia. He enjoys hunting, and aims to use his business to help wounded warriors, “to get ’em out, back into the world” of active sport.
And, although members of his immediate family no longer live in Southwest Florida, Carnes said he was touched by the community’s response, which included a proclamation from the city of Fort Myers in his honor.
“Family comes in all shapes and sizes,” Carnes said, adding: “I am proud to call this home.”
Operation Open Arms for eight years offered free vacations to eligible, active-duty military folks.
The nonprofit last year shifted gears to care for people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It is honoring a vacation promise made a year ago to a hero Marine who graduated high school here.
Businesses and individuals may donate money, materials and services to Operation Open Arms.
AT A GLANCE
Operation Open Arms
2005 by John “GiddyUp” Bunch
None; all volunteers
• Service people helped to date:
2,908 in Florida and Maryland
• Estimated dollar value of benefits to military personnel:
238 and growing
• How to help:
Tax-deductible donations are welcome by mail at OOA, P.O. Box 101, St. James City, FL 33956 or on its website, operationopenarms.org
For Jonathan Carnes’ vacation: Operation Open Arms; Southwest Airlines; Jensen’s Twin Palms Cottages & Marina; ‘Tween Waters Inn; Hot Pursuit Charters; Top Dog Fishing Charters; Snook Stamp Fishing Charters; Affordable Limo; Sanibel Fire Dept.; J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation; Lee County Sheriff’s Office