Former Marine Angles to Honor Troops

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 19, 2007 - For servicemembers, "Operation Open Arms" is all about fun in the southwestern Florida sun. It's about much more than that for Capt. John Bunch, however.

Through its network of more than 125 sponsors, Operation Open Arms provides opportunities for free or discounted vacation activities.

"It's not about anything but tangible acts of kindness for our troops for two weeks," said Bunch, a fishing guide and the organization's founder. "It's pretty much two weeks of just about anything you want to do, including kayaking (and) sailing trips that are free."

The only requirement is that participants be active-duty servicemembers on leave from a foreign duty station. Marines, who are not granted leave during deployments, are the only exception to this rule. They must provide proof they have recently been assigned to a foreign duty station.

"The only responsibility that U.S. servicemen have is to be reverent and respectful of the sponsors and to be courteous," Bunch said.

Bunch, a former Marine first lieutenant -- the "captain" title refers to his current occupation as a well-known fishing guide - said he started the program without really realizing what he was doing.

In April 2005, the Vietnam veteran was eating lunch in a restaurant in St. James City, Fla., a small fishing village on Pine Island, about 30 miles from Fort Myers. A young soldier and fishing enthusiast, Army Spc. Travis Downes, recognized Bunch from the TV fishing show he co-hosts.

The soldier asked where he could go fishing along the shore because he couldn't afford a charter trip.

When Bunch discovered Downes had orders to Iraq, he made a command decision. "I said, 'Don't worry about the money. I'll take you fishing, and there'll be no charge,'" Bunch said. "He just absolutely couldn't believe it."

Downes and his father offered to contribute something at the end of the trip, but the captain of GiddyUp Fishing Charter wouldn't hear of it.

"I said, 'Absolutely not. Travis is paying a big enough price by going back to Iraq for the third time. (This is) the least I can do for him,'" Bunch said. "It actually made me feel better to receive nothing, ... given the circumstances."

That feeling got him thinking. Before the day was over, he had four other fishing captains lined up to provide fishing excursions for servicemembers from Pine Island who came home on two weeks of rest and recuperation leave. The next calls he made were to five contacts from his days as a golf pro and five restaurant owners on the island; all agreed to provide free golf games and meals, respectively.

Then a story about the program appeared in the local newspaper, catching the eye of a "Today" show correspondent's mother. Before long, the NBC program had set up shop on Pine Island to tell the tale of Operation Open Arms.

The segment, which aired Memorial Day 2005, generated a new wave of sponsors ready to offer services to troops.

"It went from a very small thing -- a very well-intended thing that would serve a very small number of people -- to now a runaway successful train."

The "Today" show exposure also generated something else: a desire for the program to go national.

"After the 'Today' show, I received 2,188 e-mails and letters about Operation Open Arms from all over the country," Bunch said. "All of the letters were pretty much the same thing, 'Can you come (here) and do this?'

"Given how easy it was to do this, there's absolutely no reason there shouldn't be an Operation Open Arms in every single county of every single state in the United States, in my opinion," he said, adding that he's offering "lessons learned" to those interested in starting their own programs.

Though the seed for Operation Open Arms may have sprouted when Bunch met Downes in 2005, he said it had been planted when he was a young Marine officer.

"I was a young second lieutenant in the Marines going through the D.C. airport, and some war protestors spit on my brand new Marine Corps officer uniform," he said. "I swore that day if I could ever treat U.S. service people better than what I was treated ... I would do it.

"It was almost like this whole thing was meant to happen from that incident," he said.

Bunch has made good on that promise to himself. What originated as a program for servicemembers from the 17-mile-by-2-mile Pine Island, has never turned down any servicemember wanting to enjoy what the sponsors are offering. He said they had servicemembers in from Texas and Arizona this past Christmas.

Eligible servicemembers wishing to participate in Operation Open Arms should visit the program's Web site,, and follow the instructions. Because Bunch accepts no funds and runs the program with just two volunteers, participants must contact and make arrangement directly with the sponsors, he said. Servicemembers will be required to provide a military identification card, as well as leave documents.

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