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OOA, Red Cross team up to provide mental health care for troops

By Staff | Mar 19, 2009

Ever answering the call to assist our nation’s military, Pine Island resident and Operation Open Arms founder John Bunch recently met with the Lee County Red Cross to address a growing concern.
“I had a woman call me recently about her son who was home on military leave who was in need of mental health services. He had tried to get assistance through the VA but was essentially told that he wasn’t eligible because he was still active duty and was not considered a vet. That is when I decided to take action,” said Bunch.
“Statistics have shown that in January of this year, more of our soldiers died as a result of suicide than those in battle in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” he continued. “This is a growing problem and one that needs to be addressed immediately.”
Bunch approached Heidi Ruster, executive director with the Lee County Red Cross, to seek help with his new mission.
“We have a team of professional mental health therapists who help out during times of disaster such like the aftermath of Hurricane’s Charley and Katrina. It is our hope that these same qualified professionals and others will step forward to lend services to our military men and women,” said Ruster.
Bunch has set a goal to enlist the services of at least 10 therapist to partner with OOA and the Red Cross to provide free mental help for military members as well as those who are no longer serving.
“When these folks have to go through the VA, they have a mountain of red tape to get through, not to mention the time it takes to get help, especially this time of year when we have a multitude of seasonal residents availing themselves of VA services,” Bunch said. “The local VA is overwhelmed, and in many cases the men and women needing help with mental health issues are in urgent need and simply cannot afford the time it takes.
“My efforts only began a couple of days ago and already one qualified Pine Islander has come forth to offer her services,” Bunch continued. “Known locally as a singer and performer, Annie Wenz is a licenced professional mental health therapist and has agreed to come on board. I hope others will follow suit.”
According to Ruster, those who would like to provide services do not need licenses in the state of Florida to volunteer.
“Those who are not licenced to practice in the state need only become a volunteer of the Red Cross, go through our training program and can then see patients,” she said. “We have already been providing similar services to family members who have lost loved ones in battle and we see this as another way to expand this service. We are simply trying to fill in the gaps.”
According to Bunch, any of the therapists who come into the program will have their information posted at the OOA Web site, operationopenarms.org or referrals can be made through the Red Cross office in Fort Myers.
Those interested in providing professional therapeutic services can do so by contacting Bunch at jbunchie@aol.com or Ruster at the American Red Cross of Lee County at admin@arclec.org or call 278-4829.