In memory of Harry A. Chernin/Veteran & American Hero
CFS Roofing/A Crowther Roofing Company
Spring Run Charitable Foundation/Spring Run Country Club
Jensen Twin Palms (Captiva)
Whats New…Now accepting Credit Card and PayPal Donations! Help create great memories for an active duty soldier today.
In the News
3/14/18 – US Congressman pays tribute to OOA
3/8/18 – OOA in the Naples Daily News
5/19/17 – Jensens Pitch In To Help Veterans Group
6/21/16 – Make PTSD counseling a priority
5/16/16 – USA Today journalist praises OOA
6/8/15 – OOA Founder vs Alligator!
1/28/15 – Scientists Seek OOA Founder
8/30/14 – OOA’s 100th Wedding!
8/21/13 – Marine writes stirring appeal for OOA
8/2/13 – Operation Open Arms needs our help
11/11/12 – Operation Open Arms donates final wedding
09/12/12 Collins Vision Contacts OOA to Help Give Troops the Gift of Vision.
05/09/12 Operation Open Arms is Honored with Junonia Award by Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce.
05/06/2012 Florida Weekly newspaper names OOA” Best Nonprofit/Charitable Organization.”
04/29/12 US Marine Cpl Jonathan Taylor becomes OOA’s 2000th participant to receive full benefits.
04/21/2012 Wink News Covers Operation Open Arms welcoming of 1,999th Member at Southwest Florida International Airport.
03/31/12 Tarpon Lodge, Bert’s Bar, Sandy Hook, Jay at Bubba’s Roadhouse, Gerald Butters, Lisa Benton, Elaine McLaughlin, Maxine and Steve Woodard and Capt Chris Stanford and more Pine Islanders organize with Operation Open arms to provide Soldier’s wedding April 4.
02/08/12 Florida Weekly writer Roger Williams writes about Operation Open Arms and the organization’s need for administrative volunteers and donations for operating expenses.
2/1/12 Parrot Key Grill helps Operation Open Arms recover from arson’s fire with speedy donation to replace lost gift certificates.
Tara Woodring and Jeremy Crosby, both active duty service members, tied the knot at a sunset wedding on Pine Island at renowned Tarpon Lodge. Operation Open Arms’ 92nd wedding!
12/09/11 Gabriel and Caitilyn Lopez receive free beach wedding thanks to Pink Shell Resort and many Operation Open Arms contributors.
12/06/2011 Operation Open Arms Surprises Bride and Groom to be with Limo Ride in advance of OOA’s 90th Wedding as featured on WINK News.
11/20/11 Founder of Operation Open Arms, Captain John “GiddyUp” Bunch, Featured in Regional Southwest FL Living Magazine (Making Waves, page 10) for his Veteran’s day tribute to active duty troops.
11/11/11 Operation Open Arms and Pink Shell Resort host Six Weddings on Veteran’s Day, 11-11-11
11/01/11 Pine Islanders Care – Operation Open Arms a local treasure in Southwest FL.
09/09/11 Operation Open Arms Rallies Community to Bring Marine for Leave.
07/30/11 Fort Myers Beach Talk covers US Marines retreat sponsored by OOA. Recounts action on the battle field of soldier wounded while fighting the Taliban.
07/28/11 US Marines on leave from Afghanistan, Pakistan borders enjoy Fort Myers Beach retreat courtesy of OOA and ask others to donate to keep OOA going.
06/29/2011 Operation Open Arms Gets New Wheels – 1999 BMW Donated for Soldier Transport.
06/21/11 OOA helps serviceman get married on Fort Myers Beach. Our 81st wedding!
04/18/11 – OOA Receives Prestigious Award. John Bunch receives esteemed Seven Seals Award.
04/17/11 – Soldiers get Dream Wedding on Fort Myers Beach via Operation Open Arms.
03/09/2011 – ‘Giddyup’ behind a hero’s pitch. The News-Press’s Sam Cook writes local soldier’s first pitch for Red Sox-Braves game.
Category Archives: General OOA Articles
February 3, 2016
Local veterans organization Operation Open Arms came to the aid of the Jardas family recently following the loss of Fort Myers resident and Marine Cpl. Thomas Jardas.
On Thursday, Jan. 14, two Marine helicopters, each carrying six Marines, were reported missing off the western coast of Oahu, Hawaii.
The following day the names of the missing Marines was released. Among the missing was Jardas. He was serving as crew chief during a training mission aboard one of the two helicopters, which reportedly collided during the mission.
After an extensive 5-day search, on Jan. 21, the U.S. Marine Corps suspended the search and changed the status of the Marines from “missing” to “deceased.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Marines and their families as we all mourn this tragic loss of life,” the Marine Corps said in an official statement. “The Marine Corps is focused on taking care of our Marines and their families.”
When Capt. John “Giddyup” Bunch, founder of Operation Open Arms, learned of the tragedy, OOA came to the aid of the Jardas family.
“Whenever a Marine is lost or killed, all Marines past and present, take this very personally,” Bunch said. “OOA provided transportation to and from RSW, coordinating a helicopter flyover with Sheriff Mike Scott, hotel rooms for the extended family, and a professional bagpipe band. I understand Tommy Jardas liked bagpipes.”
“I was working with United Way and John Bunch and I crossed paths about 10 years ago,” Tim Jardas (Cpl. Jardas’ father) said. “When we got the news about my son, the family was at a loss as to what to do. John Bunch contacted us and I have to say John was just amazing. He worked night and day to help us. John was my ‘go-to’ guy for so many things.”
A Memorial Mass was held Monday, Jan. 25, at St. Columbkille Church in Fort Myers.
“It should be noted OOA secured helicopters for the prayer vigil, a lone bagpiper for the memorial service and prayer vigil, a bagpipe band for funeral, 8 hotel rooms, and airport transportation,” Bunch said. “Plus, Lee County Sheriff’s Department, multiple fire departments and multiple police agencies including Fort Myers were all coordinated by OOA including security of Jardas home during funeral.”
Then bagpiper Steve Adams of San Carlos Park, played “Amazing Grace” transitioning to “The Marine Corps Hymn” and ending with “God Bless America.”
“Just then the Lee County Sheriff Department helicopter flew overhead in a salute to the young Marine,” Bunch said.
“This was OOA’s (Florida and Marlyand) 33rd direct assistance for fallen heroes,” Bunch said. “Our first was 2005.”
OOA is a 501(c) 3 public charity. OOA has no payroll or salaries. OOA has no political or religious or affiliation.
Operation Open Arms, founded in St James City in 2005, has now become OOA Fl and OOA Md. To date 3,304 U.S. troops have received $12.1 million in direct benefits.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions are suggested to Operation Open Arms, P.O. Box 101, St. James City, FL 33956.
Bluegrass, Brew and BBQ: Benefit on the Beach for Operation Open Arms
May 22, 2015
Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer
For the second year in a row, in honor of Memorial Day, Fort Myers Beach, is eager to host the Bluegrass, Brew and BBQ benefit.
The event will be held Saturday, May 23, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., benefitting Operation Open Arms, a Southwest Florida charity dedicated to the care and treatment of PTSD in military personnel and veterans, as well as supplying on-leave military personnel with unforgettable retreats in paradise.
The patriotic event will feature live music from the Cooter Creek Bluegrass Band and the Bugtussle Ramblers, craft draft beer from Fort Myers Brewery, alligator wrestling from “The Gator Crusader,” and a $15 barbecue buffet cooked up by the legendary Chef Dave Chetwin.
“It doesn’t get more patriotic than bluegrass, craft beer and barbecue on Memorial Day weekend for this great charity, Operation Open Arms,” said Glen Petrarca, general manager of Matanzas on the Bay. “Bluegrass is a great American tradition. As Memorial Day weekend and a benefit for our troops, what better way to raise awareness for Operation Open Arms. All of the benefit money raised that day will be given directly to the foundation. They do a lot of work in the community and elsewhere for military personnel suffering from PTSD. There is no greater honor than being able to encourage and thank the members of our military who are fighting for our country’s freedom.”
The bluegrassin’ Bugtussle Ramblers will kick off the music that day, starting in the early afternoon, followed by the Cooter Creek Bluegrass Band headlining from 5 to 8 p.m.
“They reunited last year at the restaurant for our inaugural event, so we’re really happy to have them back,” Petrarca said.
Fact Box – Operation Open Arms
Operation Open Arms is a nationally acclaimed military outreach program founded in 2005, the only 501(c)3 public Florida charity honored by two sitting U.S. Presidents. Designated a public charity by the IRS in 2008, Operation Open Arms has no payroll or salaries. Since 2005, Southwest Florida has become our nation’s most popular leave destination for US Troops for good reason. Those serving in combat or foreign duty stations can visit Southwest Florida and enjoy R&R benefits free of charge, thanks to the Operation Open Arms’ network of local sponsors of the charity. Operation Open Arms of Southwest Florida has provided charitable resources for over 1,900 U.S. troops and their families since its founding.
The organization has a very 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.
For further information on the foundation, to find out how you can help, or to make a donation, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit OperationOpenArms.org.
Keep cool with craft brews from Fort Myers Brewery, offering their High-Five IPA and Gateway Gold on tap from the craft beer tent on the bay, along with Matanzas additional tasty beer selection.
Chetwin is cooking up a patriotic feast, featuring smoked pork shank, barbecue ribs, his famous potato salad and corn on the cob, all buffet style, all for $15, with half of that price going directly to Operation Open Arms.
The Gator Crusader, making a special trip south from Orlando, will be entertaining with his alligator allies and ferocious feats.
Additional funds raised that day will be through a 50/50 drawing and many raffle prizes that will be called off, offering anything from champagne cruises and golf packages, donated by Capt John “GiddyUp” Bunch, and a two-night stay at Matanzas Inn, as well as a selection of other prizes.
“In addition to the fund raiser that day, we’re donating 10 percent of the entire day’s revenue to the cause, and offering roasted oysters for $1 each, all of that?going to Operation Open Arms, as well,” Glen said. “When I first learned about Operation Open Arms, I was immediately attracted to this organization’s mission to provide service men and women with the opportunity to enjoy an all-expense-paid retreat in Southwest Florida upon returning from foreign duty.
“Over the years, Matanzas on the Bay has contributed free dinners and hotel rooms to Operation Open Arms in order to support the soldiers within the organization. What better way to honor our soldiers than by giving them a relaxing vacation that will allow them to spend time with their loved ones?
“As general manager of Matanzas on the Bay on Fort Myers Beach, I want to use our resources to help Operation Open Arms to continue serving our U.S. soldiers and veterans. As longtime supporters of Operation Open Arms, our company wanted to take the next step in supporting this organization. Last year, more than 800 people came out to enjoy great food and entertainment and help us support a great cause during our inaugural Bluegrass, Brew and BBQ benefit, raising $2,200 for the foundation. This year, we’re hoping our benefit will be even bigger and better than the last.”
For more information on the second annual Bluegrass, Brew and BBQ for Operation Open Arms, call 239-463-3838 or visit Matanzas.com.
Matanzas on the Bay is at 416 Crescent St. on Fort Myers Beach.
EASTON — The Mid-Shore League of Republican Women, on March 11, will welcome two veterans to talk about the needs of returning service men and women.
John “Giddyup” Bunch, a former Marine captain, fishing charter captain and founder of Operation Open Arms, will talk about the Operation Open Arms program he has implemented in Florida. His program began in 2005 with a chance meeting with a young soldier who was between deployments to Iraq and wanted to go fishing. Bunch took him fishing at no charge as a way of saying thank you for his service.
While he continued his fishing charter business, he also took on the needs of returning vets in his area, finally establishing a 501(C)(3) organization in 2008 after having funded Operation Open Arms on his own for three years. The organization has provided for veterans weddings, vacations and a team of professionals to offer psychological counseling, among other services.
Retired U.S. Navy Capt. William Dial, an Oxford resident and a veteran of the Vietnam Conflict, will talk about the current situations returning veterans face and the services needed to support them.
The Mid-Shore League of Republican Women will meet at 6:30 p.m. March 11 at the Comfort Inn in Easton. The meeting is open to the public.
Fishing for data
State recruits fishers to build stronger stocks
BY ROGER WILLIAMS
Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch had just gotten to the office recently and settled in to work when three men threw their beer cans and pop cans all over the floor — an office floor, in his case, that sprawls across 270 square miles of Charlotte Harbor, Florida’s second-largest bay, fed by the Myakka River in the northwest and the Peace River in the northeast.
There, Capt. Bunch — the founder of Operation Open Arms to welcome home combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan with free vacations, weddings or fishing trips — works as a fishing guide.
“We couldn’t believe what we were watching,” he recalls. So he began to collect the junk they’d set adrift. Then he bagged it, maneuvered up beside their boat and pitched the mess back onto their deck.
“They actually thought it was funny and apologized, after calling me a rectal orifice,” he recalls.
“‘Don’t take it personally boys,’ I told them. ‘My other option is to call my FWC buddy (the Florida Fish and Wildlife conservation commission) and have him ticket you. Show me some love and keep your trash out of my office. I work here.’”
One of countless “stakeholders” who use and love the waters of Charlotte Harbor, Capt. Bunch probably epitomizes the kind of person researchers at the University of Florida and Mote Marine Laboratories, along with the University’s Sea-Grant county extension agents, are looking to welcome to their new joint program: the Charlotte Harbor Fisheries Forum. He’s been fishing these waters for decades, and he cares deeply about them.
The call has now gone out to solicit the experience and knowledge of Capt. Bunch and anyone else in a public forum who can help data collectors.
“We’re hoping it will be a productive way to create a productive line of communication between users at the local level and scientists and managers,” explains Joy Hazell, the University of Florida’s Sea Grant extension agent in Lee County.
“The ultimate goal,” according to a press release, “is to pinpoint the needs and status of fisheries in more detail at the local level, allowing communities to give more complete, collaborative and sustained feedback to government agencies and researchers. Participants will work in small groups to brainstorm key local fisheries issues and discuss potential processes for building and sharing group information and recommendations.”
Part of the problem is the obvious, suggests Capt. Betty Staugler, the University’s Sea Grant extension agent in Charlotte County.
“There are more people, now. There have been more changes to the Charlotte estuary. There have been impacts to the fishery that may go back before data collections, so observations (of long-time and daily users, especially) can’t be quantified. But they’re important.”
Especially when delivered in a “”playsafe” environment of mutual respect for different ideas.
The new program is the brainchild of U.F. Professor Kai Lornezen, who used combinations of local wisdom, academic research and local management in developing countries to good effect, combining data with anecdote and intimate local knowledge to help maintain or restore healthy fisheries, says Ms. Hazell. (Professor Lorenzen did not respond to telephone and email messages before press time.)
Charlotte Harbor, meanwhile, is a massively beleaguered natural system, although no one fishery (snook or grouper, for example) is endangered at the moment, says Capt. Staugler — and it’s also the heart of a system worth millions of dollars annually to all the residents of the region extending from Sarasota to Naples.
Byron Stout, a retired, three-decade outdoors writer for The News- Press who grew up fishing the waters of Charlotte Harbor and its environs, offers some sobering observations about a reality that data may describe in scientific terms, without being able to offer solutions in real terms. Those solutions could be politically divisive.
“Florida’s FWC has good, long term, ongoing studies of fisheries in Charlotte Harbor,” Mr. Stout says. “There also are other organizations (San-Cap Conservation Foundation, South Florida Water Management District, and more) that do very solid work in the lower part of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary, which extends south to Estero Bay. It would be great if an unbiased, conservation-dedicated organization compiled and coordinated all of it.”
But there’s a big “but,” in his view:
“The problem with Charlotte Harbor proper is water quality, and more importantly, water quantity.
“For decades, the historic water inflow to the harbor has been (steadily) decreased by agriculture and the phosphate industry. Once spring-fed by the Peace River, the harbor now only gets runoff that isn’t siphoned off by urban and, mainly, industrial users. That’s life-threatening for an estuary, which by definition is an area where salt and fresh waters mix.”
Several fish species have vanished already, including the famous sturgeon, as a result.
“The reason there no longer is any spring flow along the Peace River,” explains Mr. Stout, “is the phosphate industry. It systematically dams off the surface aquifers that feed into the river by constructing miles-long clay settling ponds across the landscape. These massive impoundments are filled with clay sludge that is a byproduct of phosphate extraction. The clay settles, hardens, and forms 40-foot-thick, impermeable walls across the environment that have the potential to be the only thing left of Florida after a nuclear assault.
“Unless there becomes some unexpected world need for clay,” Mr. Stout has concluded, “they are a permanent part of the planet.”
Capt. Bunch, meanwhile, has a few opinions not only about Charlotte Harbor, but also about research grants that fund such enterprises as the year-long Charlotte Harbor Fisheries Forum.
“Grants mean huge sums of money. Academics score grants to do studies. A study requires research. Research requires time and resources. Once a plan finally evolves it must be implemented. By this time it is time to stick your feet in the water and do something (before) the academics retire on UF pensions paid by We The Taxpayers.”
What would require no grants and no research and probably no discussion to improve the declining health of Charlotte Harbor right off the bat, he suggests, would be these two measures: first, ban lead in weights attached to fishing rigs that get “trapped in rocks, reefs, refrigerator, washers, dryers and old boats sunk on purpose for private reef fishing. Every UF academic knows lead in our fishery is not a good thing.”
And second, recommends Capt. Bunch:
“On or before June 30, 2015, all boats having tanks for human waste would be required to install a bright colored non-toxic food-type dye. As well, the boat would be fitted with a special outlet valve affording a slow dripping sink effect. In other words, those who dump at 1, 2, 3 or 4 a.m. would easily be flagged and fined. In addition, new yearly registration would require pump out verification and documentation. (We should) take a page from how they do things in pristine harbors like Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California. The first year for this common sense change should have begun on Jan. 1, 2000.
“The indifference meter has been running for 15 years.” ¦
Frank Gluck, email@example.com 12:34 a.m. EDT August 24, 2014
At least 150 Mini Coopers. Possibly a hundred Harley-Davidson motorcycles. A few limos thrown in. Lots of flag waving and military salutes.
It was one of the more visually unique motorcades to make its way through Fort Myers and Cape Coral in recent memory. The goal: Raise cash for Operation Open Arms, a local charity that provides veterans with vacations, fishing trips, weddings and assistance with funerals.
Ideally, the money raised over the weekend will keep the organization afloat for at least another five years, said Open Arms founder, retired Marine Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch.
The organization has only held three such fundraising events in its history, including one this spring at Matanzas on the Bay that generated about $4,000, Bunch said.
Saturday’s parade of Minis and Harleys was the largest and aims to raise $50,000, he said. A donations tally is expected by next week.
“We’ve never had an event like this, so I’m in unknown territory,” Bunch said. “I’m not sure how realistic it is, but it’s a goal.”
Bunch said he started the charity “by accident” — a free fishing charter trip he offered to a soldier on leave from Iraq turned into a small operation providing similar services to others in the military.
A 2005 profile on NBC’s “Today” show led to an avalanche of donations. Today, Open Arms is a registered public charity that serves vets in Florida and Maryland.
Saturdays’s event started at Mini of Fort Myers, south of the Bell Tower shopping center, and headed with a police escort to the War Memorial on Veterans Parkway in Cape Coral.
Participants finished off at The Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery in south Fort Myers. Among them were about 30 members of the Southwest Florida Harley Owners Group.
“It’s for the veterans. It’s for the first-responders – police, fire(fighters), EMTs. We have a lot of retired people from all those organizations in our chapter,” said chapter director Ron Chapperon.
Don Czech and his wife, JoAnn, brought their red and white striped Mini to the event. They’re such fans of the Minis, they travel with a small model of one in their car.
“I’m a veteran myself. So, anything that supports the troops, I’m all for it,” said Don Czech, of Cape Coral. “I served three tours in Vietnam – we didn’t get any of this kind of stuff.”
Connect with this reporter: @FrankGluck (Twitter)
About Operation Open Arms
Founded in 2005 by John “GiddyUp” Bunch of St. James City, Open Arms has provided 2,949 servicemen and women free one-week vacations, planned 99 weddings and assisted with 31 funerals. All donations go to these services. Open Arms does not pay its staff or its leadership, publicly reported tax documents show.
How to help
Donations can be made at the Open Arms website. Those who wish to help go to operationopenarms.org or send tax deductible donations to:
• Operation Open Arms, P.O. Box 101, St. James City, Fl., 33956
Military members wed at Pink Shell
News-press.com 11:30 a.m. EDT August 30, 2014
Thomas B. Walker IV, of the U.S. Marine Corps, and Crystal Walker, of the U.S. Coast Guard, renew their vows at the Pink Shell resort during the 100th military wedding in Lee County put on by Operation Open Arms.
Operation Open Arms sponsors weddings free of charge for “active duty soldiers returning from combat and/or foreign duty stations.”
A Southwest Florida military charity is hoping an offer to the parents of slain U.S. journalist James Foley to spend a week on Captiva Island will help the New Hampshire residents deal with their loss.
Marine John “GiddyUp” Bunch, of St. James City, runs Operation Open Arms and is usually involved helping disabled veterans, servicemen and women in need.
The beheading of Foley this month at the hands of Islamic terror organization ISIS prompted Bunch to make the offer.
The vacation offer is now in the Foleys’ hands and an answer was expected soon, a family spokesman said.
Foley was abducted in northern Syria in November 2012 while covering that country’s civil war. ISIS said the beheading was in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq.
“In my 91/2 years as founder and director of Operation Open Arms, I have never had anything affect me quite like the beheading of James Foley, an innocent American in Iraq,” Bunch said.
Bunch said this is the first time civilian personnel are invited and stressed no Open Arms funds would be used on what would be a $3,500 to $4,000 offer. “Donations and in-kind services are being used by all involved,” he said.
Fort Myers Councilman Tom Leonardo made the offer Monday at Bunch’s request. The two arranged a similar vacation for Marine Cpl. Christian Brown.
Brown made news in 2012 after passengers complained he received rude and humiliating treatment aboard a Delta Air Lines flight.
Leonardo said he spoke with John and Diane Foley’s parish priest in Rochester, N.H., on Monday and received a response Tuesday afternoon.
He said the clergyman said he would get back to Leonardo next week.
What Operation Open Arms does
The charity has obtained services such as wedding photos, fishing charters and limousine transport for servicemen and servicewomen in need. The group has provided 2,689 service members with free one-week vacations upon returning from combat or a foreign duty, such as Gitmo, South Korea, or Germany.
ABC-7 – Posted: May 02, 2014 8:52 PM EST Updated: May 03, 2014 11:13 AM EST
Fort Myers city leaders have declared Monday “Jonathan Carnes Day.”
Cpl. Carnes is a Marine who grew up in Collier County. After graduating from Gulf Coast High School, where he starred on the football and lacrosse teams, Carnes served in Afghanistan.
In late 2011, Carnes stepped on an improvised exploding device. The IED explosion forced doctors to amputate Carnes’ right leg.
But after two long years of rehab and recovery, Carnes is now active and mobile, with the help of a prosthetic leg.
“Only thing I have to do everyday is put a leg on,” Carnes said. “After that, I can keep up with anybody.”
He lives in the Washington D.C. area, but on Thursday, he arrived at Fort Myers International Airport. That’s where Fort Myers City Councilman Tom Leonardo presented him with a proclamation, declaring May 5 as “Jonathan Carnes Day.”
“I never thought I’d live long enough to see it,” Carnes admits. “This is pretty amazing, honestly.”
The trip was put together and paid for by Operation Open Arms, a Southwest Florida non-profit organization helping numerous soldiers. In fact, founder John “Giddy Up” Bunch said the group was nearing its 3,000th soldier helped over its nine years of existence.
Operation Open Arms survives on donations and is run by an all-volunteer force; no one gets a paycheck. But they have been responsible for more than $11 million in benefits to service men and women. You can donate at the organization’s website.
The five-day trip they arranged for Carnes — his first time back in Southwest Florida in five years – includes participation in the Ding Darling & Doc Ford Tarpon Tournament this week. The Purple Heart recipient will also stay for free at ‘Tween Waters Inn and Jensen’s Twin Palms Cottages & Marina on Captiva.
Carnes has officially retired from the Marine Corps and is working for a sprinkler company. But he has set a goal of opening a gun shop, either in the D.C. area or in Southwest Florida.
Laura Ruane, firstname.lastname@example.org 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