Local organization flourishing despite limited resources.
Operation Open Arms, a nonprofit charity that has helped hundreds of Southwest Florida veterans, soldiers and their families, is again looking to lend a hand to a local soldier.
Marine John “GiddyUp” Bunch of St. James City runs the charity — on a shoestring.
Recently, Bunch, a retired Marine and a fishing charter captain, got wind of another local serviceman who needed help getting home for the holidays.
In March, U.S. Army Spec. Joel Black returned home from a year-long first tour of duty in Afghanistan to a hero’s welcome at Southwest Florida International Airport.
Coordinated by his mother Diane Miller of Cape Coral, the young soldier was stunned by the welcome. After about a month at home, he was sent to his new assignment, Fort Lewis, Wash., where he’s been since.
Black wanted to be home for Christmas but could not get clearance to come until it was too late to get an inexpensive ticket. Booking one when he finally got the go-ahead meant a ticket in excess of $1,200, his mom said.
For Black, living off base on a private’s salary, that was out-of-reach. Checking with airlines most said they no longer offered military discounts or would provide only a $40 or $50 savings.
“He has to pay for his apartment, his car, and some of his uniforms,” his mother said. “On his salary he can’t afford that. The special vest he needed for Afghanistan cost him $350. As a combat soldier he needed special shoes, which he had to buy himself, about $200.”
Black would like to spend the first Christmas home in three years. Last year he was deployed as a tanker in Afghanistan and before that he was in training.
“I’m tired. I just want to come home and be with my family,” Black said.
Bunch helps soldiers like Black with a bare-bones type operation.
“OOA has no payroll and pays no salaries to anyone,” Bunch said. “In other words, everyone serves our charity because they love our troops.”
Bunch said that cash donations have been tough to come by. “Since 2005, we have received less than $95,000,” he said.
Despite that, the charity obtained services such as wedding photos, fishing charters and limousine transport for servicemen and women in need. The group has also provided 2,689 servicemen and women with free one-week vacations upon returning from combat or a foreign duty such as Gitmo, South Korea, or Germany.
Most of the services OOA provides are in-kind, offered by area resorts and other service providers.
Judi Durant, director of visitor services for the Lee County Visitors & Convention Bureau, said Bunch is tenacious, focused and relentless when helping military personnel.
“He’s a machine. He just does what is right to help people,” she said. “He pulls out all the stops to do whatever he can for the soldier.”
Furthermore, she said, those who provide the services he requests are glad to do so knowing that their offerings are going to a worthwhile cause.
“People appreciate his candor,” she said.
Bunch started the charity in 2005 after he gave a free fishing charter trip to a U.S. soldier on leave from Iraq. The organization has since become a registered public charity.
Bunch began checking around and obtained a standby ticket for Black. But he would like to do better for the young Cape Coral Army private.
“OOA has already secured a ‘Buddy Pass’ from Southwest Airlines but the chances of flying from Seattle to RSW on Dec 23rd are very remote,” Bunch said. “Donations would pay for a full round-trip ticket.”
How to help
How to help
Donations may be made at the OOA 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
• Army Private Justin Johnson of Punta Gorda was wounded in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting spree. OOA flew his mother, Roxanne Johnson, to Fort Hood and back so that she could be with her son because her car was not mechanically sound enough for the trip.
• When Spc. Danny Beougher of Cape Coral was killed in a 2007 crash on Hancock Boulevard in Cape Coral and his wife, Lauren, severely injured, OOA arranged for a new RV to transport the injured woman to her parents home in Delaware when the military could not provide her with transportation.
• In 2010, helped fund repairs to the burglarized and ransacked home of Marine Lance Cpl. Steven S. Von Soosten in Lehigh Acres, on duty in Iraq. OOA offered $500 for info leading to the arrest/conviction of those responsible. The names of those involved were given to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, and they were arrested.
• Helped Sgt. Gabby Lopez of Cape Coral and Caitlin Holloway of Pine Island get married in 2011. Lopez was returning home from Afghanistan, and Caitlin was working at Publix and talked to Bunch, who was checking out at her register, telling him of the couple’s plans, not knowing about the charity. The charity arranged to pick up Lopez at RSW and provided the couple a free wedding at Pink Shell resort.
What OAA has done
What OAA has done
Since 2005: 2,698 free one-week vacations, 99 full-service weddings, 19 funerals and more than 1,311 fishing trips.
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