For more than four years, Operation Open Arms and its various sponsors and volunteers have put their money where their mouth is when it came to thanking our troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
With no reimbursement and free of charge, they have donated hotel room nights, restaurant meals, fishing charter trips, excursions to the Keys, haircuts and dental work, and now, free and confidential counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and asked for nothing in return.
One hotel on Fort Myers Beach alone has provided free vacation rooms to more than 330 troops home on R&R. One charter captain on Pine Island has donated 42 premier grouper charters, taking soldiers and their family members out 40-plus miles into the Gulf to fish, then bringing them to his own home to enjoy a meal of their catch.
Operation Open Arms founder Capt. John "Giddy Up" Bunch has not only run his share of free fishing, dolphin watching and local cruise trips. He has fronted all administrative costs related to running the program, which has not only received nation recognition on The Today Show and CNN, but caught the attention of two sitting presidents along with the U.S. Army, which just extended an invitation to share the program's success.
Unfortunately, Capt. Bunch won't be attending. He had to turn down the invitation from Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham to attend the conference in Colorado focusing on soldier mental and physical health because Operation Open Arms is nearing the tap-out point and Capt. Bunch can't reach down into his own pocket again to pay for the trip.
Nor can the small group of existing sponsors continue to bear the full cost of the local "thank yous" that can exceed $4,000 for a full Southwest Florida vacation for visiting troops and their family members.
To assure the organization's future, Capt. Bunch has applied for, and received, tax exempt status and a nonprofit designation for Operation Open Arms. He's hoping the community will now step up with donations and offers of services to allow OOA to continue to serve returning troops without relying on the same small handful of providers who have done an excellent job of thanking those in service to our country.
We agree: It's time for the community to wrap its arms around this successful program.
According to Capt. Bunch, it's not just donations and additional sponsors, which are always welcome. It's grant writers who can help the organization obtain funding available from public sources. It's the services of professional fund raisers who can propose - and organize - some events.
Operations Open Arms isn't asking for a lot, Capt. Bunch emphasizes; it never has been about money. But it would be nice if the organization could have a small office with, perhaps, a minimum wage employee to answer the phone, do correspondence and coordinate military requests with sponsors offering the free services.
It would be nice if the organization could help the charter captains who are donating their time by reimbursing them for the cost of the gas.
And it certainly would be nice if the organization didn't have to turn down an honor that also could help countless troops by sharing information on how to set up a community-based PTSD counseling network because such a trip would drain OOA's meager bank account.
Capt. Bunch has committed another year of his time and another year of paying for the organization's expenses out-of-pocket but says he will be forced to shut down by April 19, 2010, if the financial outlook does not improve.
That would be a shame, not only for our community but for the many troops this fine organization serves.
We urge anyone with the grant-writing or fund-raising expertise to have a conversation with Capt. Bunch. We make the same suggestion if you have a vacant storefront or small office standing vacant - it may be win-win to partner with an organization that can generate some positive traffic.
And we ask that you consider Operation Open Arms among your charitable considerations, in terms of cash, volunteerism, or - from businesses - a donation of services.
Reach Capt. Bunch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations may be mailed to Operation Open Arms, P.O. Box 101, St. James City, FL 33956.
There are lots of ways to show support for our troops. We can tack on the flag lapel pin, paste a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on the SUV or don a "Freedom Isn't Free" T-shirt this Fourth of July. Or we can realize that patriotism isn't free, either, and actually thank a soldier.
Operation Opens Arms does exactly that.
- Reporter editorial