Success Stories

Operation Open Arms wants to hear stories from our troops and our contributors about your experiences. Many contributors and donors, visitors to this web site, media representatives, and government representatives enjoy reading personal accounts and articles. Contact us and send us your story. See also our Letters page for past articles and stories honoring OOA participants.

The original success story begins with SPC. Travis Downes, a U.S. Army forward scout, who was home on a two-week leave from his duty station in Iraq.  He just wanted to go fishing and Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch responded immediately. That was the beginning of Operation Open Arms in 2005.

Operation Open Arms is the only Florida charity to be featured on the NBC Today Show three times; such national acclaim is indeed a success story for the organization.

I want to thank-you for all you are doing for our two Marines. This will make their time at home much more memorable. We are so proud of Doug and Isa knowing what they have done for this country. God certainly has blessed our boys as they saw so much on their deployment. I saw Doug’s grandparents my parents for the first time In several years. They are so excited to be able to see Doug and Isa at the Airport. My Dad is a Korean Vet, so he has a very high respect for all those that are serving and have served. We will certainly want to help you in the future were ever we can.

Doug Meyer of Cape Coral - US Marine on Leave Fort Myers BeachGod Bless you and your organization supporting our local hero’s.
Douglas Meyer

Read about this OOA sponsored retreat while these US Marines were on leave at Fort Myers Beach Talk and watch the video at WINK News.

Fishing Charter, from Capt Roy Bennett

I had to tell you that I took out Army Sgt Tom McRoberts stationed in Afghanistan yesterday. He brought his wife, brother and sister in law. They were all thrilled when each of them caught a small shark. But then, Tom who re-deploys on 4/15 hooked and landed about a 110 lb tarpon.

He had said it was his dream his whole life to catch one and that’s what we had targeted on this trip. I was as thrilled as he and his family were and I know that trip will be etched in my memory forever. After bringing over a thousand tarpon to my boat over the years this one ranks in the top 5 because of who got it and what he does for us every day.

I am so glad I got involved in your program and will be touting the program to the rest of my club at this Thursday’s meeting.

Thanks for your time.  Capt Roy Bennett (Hot One II Charters).

Fishing Charter, Captain Hank

On Saturday April 15, 2006 the “RUFFINIT” hosted an offshore fishing trip for Robert Wictenberg and friends. Robert is a soldier home for a 2 week vacation after spending more then a year in Afghanistan. He will soon be his way to Germany, from where he expects to be deployed to Iraq in the near future. We all had a great time, the weather couldn’t have been better, and the fishing was pretty good. Capt Hank

Cape Coral Breeze News
Operation Open Arms brings Texas Army family local joy
By AILEEN McELROY,
amcelroy@breezenewspapers.com

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Francisco Guerra and his family of six, including his wife, Beatriz, and four kids, Lorena (7), Lucero (5), Francisco, Jr. (3) and Larisa (1) were invited to southwest Florida by members of the Operation Open Arms organization, a group that offers soldiers on combat leave memorable vacations and amenities in our area.

St. James City fishing captain John GiddyUp” Bunch founded Operation Open Arms in 2005. The Lee County program aims to provide memorable vacations to U.S. service men and women on temporary leave from foreign duty by offering free amenities.

More than 140 local sponsors are members of the program, providing hotel stays, golfing excursions, fishing trips, fine dining and more.

The underlying mission is that our sponsors perform tangible acts of kindness for U.S. troops on combat leave,” said Bunch.

The program serves solely Lee County military men and women and their families. But, after receiving a letter from Francisco’s wife, Beatriz, last October, the founder broke the rules and invited Texan Guerra and his family to enjoy beautiful southwest Florida.

Through her letter, Beatriz inquired if an Operation Open Arms existed in Texas. She wrote of her husband, who would complete his second 15-month deployment to Iraq in December, and of her wish for the family to have “a magical and memorable” family reunion that would alleviate some of the stress the young family experienced with a dad overseas, working seven days straight in “extremely hot weather.” She signed the letter “Beatriz Guerra, proud Army wife.”

After reading the letter, Bunch desired to give Francisco a memorable temporary leave unlike the sergeant’s last leave, which peaked with a family trip to a local park and McDonald’s.

“Her letter sunk deep down into my heart,” he said.

Capt. GiddyUp approached his local civic group, the Matlacha Mariners, who decided to fund the family’s airfare to Florida. Over the past week, the Guerras took advantage of all the Beach had to offer through Operation Open Arms. Before returning home, the Guerras enjoyed a sailing trip, provided by Capt. Tom Cameron of Curlew Street.

On Monday, Cameron awaited the family’s arrival to his backyard dock. Under a grapefruit tree beside the water, he spoke of his Operation Open Arms membership.

“I read about Operation Open Arms and what it was doing in the paper,” he said. “Donating services to any returning military from Iraq and Afghanistan is right up my alley. So, I immediately got in touch with Capt. John Bunch.”

As a 1957-58 Army tanker stationed in Fort Knox and Fort Dixon, Cameron feels a heartful kinship with today’s U.S. military men and women.

“I’m a veteran, a former Army man and I’d do anything  just to see them have fun and relax,” he said.

Previously, Cameron has hosted four soldiers and their spouses aboard his 30-foot catamaran. The captain encourages his guests to grab a cushion and a soda and get comfy while sailing past Bird Island, Big Carlos Pass, Fort Myers Beach or Lovers Key.

“My mast is 48 feet high, so if we go south through Big Carlos Pass, we have to have the bridge open, which is always something for them to take pictures of. After the bridge, we go out whichever way the wind is going,” he said. “An real added treat is the dolphins. If they’re back there behind the bridge, what I do is bang the side of the boat, and they’re very nosey. They come over and swim alongside the boat.”

With high tide nearing, Francisco, Beatriz and their four children, Lorena (7), Lucero (5), Francisco, Jr. (3) and Larisa (1), arrived at Cameron’s bayside home. As the kids frolicked with the captain’s dogs and picked up shells lining the pool, Francisco, wearing an olive Army cap, and his wife spoke of their stay on Fort Myers Beach.

“It’s been awesome,” said Francisco.

“We’ve never been to Florida and it was a great experience. It’s wonderful,” said Beatriz.

Over the past week, Operation Open Arms Beach sponsors donated their services to the Guerra family. Andrea and Tom of the Silver Sands Hotel hosted the family.

“We’ve been swimming at the Beach and at the hotel pool,” said Beatriz, smiling.

Key West Express provided the Guerras with a Sunday venture to the Keys, and Paul Russell of the Fort Myers Beach U.S. Coast Guard station invited the family on a dolphin-watching trip.

“Our children love animals. We saw a couple of dolphins, and our children got to drive the boat,” said Beatriz.

The staff of Parrot Key treated the family to a dinner of crabs, steak, shrimp and hotdogs.

“Parrot Key is a wonderful place. We loved it and they had awesome food,” said Beatriz.

Five-year-old Lorena picked a hibiscus and placed the flower behind her mother’s ear while Beatriz shared her happiness about shedding sweaters and long sleeves for sundresses and shorts.

“Up in Texas, it’s cold now,” said Beatriz. “The palms, trees, everything here is so different. The climate is awesome.”

Beatriz gave a wistful smile, surveying the bay behind Cameron’s home.

“We didn’t expect all of this,” she said. “We’ve enjoyed everything. The people have been great to us. We hate to leave.”

After Francisco’s temporary leave, the sergeant will be stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso.

“He went to Iraq and now he’s back for good,” said Beatriz. “He and most of his soldiers are back. We’re glad to have him back and safe.”

From the News-Press Southwest Florida News
OBAMA VISIT: Iraq veteran attending with VIP tickets
February 2009

St. James City Capt. John ‘Giddyup’ Bunch has VIP tickets to see President Obama, and he’s taking an Iraq veteran as his guest, the founder of Operation Open Arms told The News-Press.

Operation Open Arms has been nationally acclaimed for its support of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The organization donates free guided fishing trips, restaurant meals and other perks to members of the armed forces on leave.

Capt. Bunch, a former Marine, chose Lance Corporal Travis Murray, of Naples, as his guest due to hardship Murray recently suffered. His mother died Sunday.

I said, How would you like to meet the President.’ And he said, That would be the greatest honor of my life.’ Capt. Bunch said he got the tickets on the recommendation of Fort Myers Mayor Jim Humphrey.

I got a restricted-number telephone call from a White House staff member, directing me to pick my tickets up between one and four at Harborside. She said, This is in recognition of everything Operation Open Arms is about.

From the Cape Coral Daily Breeze
Operation Open Arms comes first for local founder; Bunch chooses charter over meeting president
By MATT BLUMENFELD,
mblumenfeld@breezenewspapers.com

For the last three years, Capt. John Bunch has brought joy to dozens of soldiers who come home on leave from foreign outposts and war zones. The Pine Island charter captain has taken a number of the nation’s finest out on the water for free fishing trips and helped America’s heroes take their minds off of the mission, even if it is for a short while.

When President Bush touched down in Southwest Florida late last week, Bunch was to receive personal thanks from the commander in chief. Honored, Bunch initially accepted, but when he realized that the president was coming on the same day the captain pledged to take an Army sergeant out on a charter, Bunch stuck to his word.

“I made a promise to this guy six months ago and I made a promise to a father and son later that day and I am not the type of person who breaks a promise,” he said. “Would it be worth breaking a promise for 45 seconds of having the most powerful person in the world slap you on the back, joke with you and say, ‘Good job with Operation Open Arms’?”

When he landed at Southwest Florida International Airport, Bush instead met with a Dunbar High School graduate and gave him the President’s Volunteer Service Award for the student’s work in the Freedom Corps. He then spent the lunch hour at a fund-raiser in Naples before heading to North Carolina.

Bunch said his decision was “not personal,” adding that he looked forward to meeting the president of the United States.

“It’s probably the ultimate validation for Operation Open Arms,” he said of the president planning to honor the organization. “It’s the ultimate validation for a program that has been so successful because we have the type of people in Lee County who don’t break their promises.”

But despite the honor, the charter captain could not ignore a soldier returning home from Iraq for two weeks. The soldier, whose home base is Fort Benning, Ga., specifically asked for the Operation Open Arms founder’s help to unwind and to take him out fishing in the Gulf.

“This could have been the last time he had the opportunity to fish with me,” Bunch said. “I was not about to turn him down for any reason.”

Always the character, Bunch said that his commitment to his word dates back to a time when he ran away from home at age 12. His parents had promised to take him to Darlington to watch the big auto racing events but the family never made the trip. When he reached that preteen age, Bunch finally had enough.

“I’m tired of your idle promises and I’m going to see the races,” he wrote in a note to his parents.

“From that day I have never broken a promise to anybody. It is just against my personal constitution,” Bunch added.

Staffers for U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, worked furiously to get Bunch in the welcoming party at the airport. Mack’s chief of staff, Jeff Cohen, helped the charter captain through the vetting process and explained to the White House the reason Bunch deserved to meet the president.

When Bunch opted out, he tried to get the invitation transferred to Pine Island Chamber of Commerce head Lisa Benton and Pine Island Eagle editor Marianne Paton. But the invite could not be transferred as there was just nine days between Bunch’s decline and the president’s arrival.

“The invitation was for Capt. Bunch and for Capt. Bunch alone,” said Stephanie DuBois, press secretary for Mack’s office. “It was an exclusive invite.”

Even though there was no one for Bush to meet from Operation Open Arms, Bunch does not regret the choice he made. “I still believe I made the right decision,” he said.

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