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Operation Open Arms continues veterans’ aid efforts

By Staff | May 16, 2009

The charitable organization started in 2005 like a snowball sitting on top of a hill. It has since been rolling downward and collecting steam and size with over 130 local sponsors donating free lodging, fishing trips, golf outings, meals, personal services, tickets to sporting events and other services.
Operation Open Arms offers local Southwest Florida businesses, associations, and individuals an opportunity to support our troops. Its mission is to provide every possible benefit through a variety of sponsors before our service men and women have to return to their foreign duty stations.
One of the latest donations is automobile repair from DeHays Automotive, Inc. at 17617 Broadway Ave. near Beach Bowl on San Carlos Boulevard. Owner Larry DeHays, a Vietnam veteran, says his auto repair shop offers free labor and 10 percent off the necessary parts to any active duty service person who is stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan or their immediate family members (spouse, children).
Dehays found out about Operation Open Arms while reading an article on the internet and, after spending five years in the navy and in Vietnam, he decided to pitch in.
“I kind of know what it’s like to come back and not get a really good reception,” he said. “I wanted to do something about the reception our service people get when they return.”
Fort Myers’ Janelle Stephens, the wife of Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Stephens who is stationed in Afghanistan, became DeHays’ third beneficiary of auto service when the repair of her 2004 Ford Explorer was completed May 13.
“At first, I was a little hesitant because it was free but I’m glad I went with them,” she said. “They’ve been calling me every step of the way and making sure that I am informed about everything that is going on. They’ve just been really great to me. It’s nice to know someone is out there that I can trust to take care of my vehicle.”
According to DeHays service manager Steve Stack, Stephens “had a throttle body problem on her car. The repair shop wants to help others.
“We purchased the parts from the dealer, installed them for her and gave a free inspection on her car because she will be doing some travelling soon,” said Stack “All the labor was covered on that. We’re trying to get the word out.”

The start of Operation Open Arms: April 2005
Captain John “Giddy Up” Bunch from St. James City, Florida started taking service men on leave from foreign outposts and war zones on fishing trips when he grew tired of hearing that these soldiers just wanted to relax, go fishing, but didn’t have much time or money.
The former marine officer started taking them out on his charter boat for free. Other local guides decided to jump on the bandwagon and offered their trips for no cost before other businesses followed suit by providing their services. The program then expanded to all of Lee County and to several areas nation-wide. To this day, it is known as the largest volunteer program to provide memorable vacations to the military in the United States.
“The underlying mission is that our sponsors perform tangible acts of kindness for U.S. troops on combat leave,” Bunch told the Observer’s Aileen McElroy back in January 2008.

One of the first
on Fort Myers Beach
In January of 2008, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Francisco Guerra and his family of six from Texas were given the red-carpet treatment on Fort Myers Beach.
Through Operation Open Arms, the Guerra family were given a sailing trip provided by Captain Tom Cameron of Curlew Street; hosted and stayed at the Silver Sands Hotel on Estero Boulevard; enjoyed a Sunday venture to the Florida Keys by the local Key West Express; invited on a dolphin-watching trip by Paul Russell of the FMB U.S. Coast Guard station; and fed a dinner of crabs, steak, shrimp and hotdogs by the staff of Parrot Key Caribbean Grill on Main Street of San Carlos Island.

What is
Operation Open Arms?
Operation Open Arms offers many services to the heroes and their immediate families in honor of their sacrifices and service to our country.
It is a 501(c)(3) tax deductible, charitable organizations.
In Lee County, Operation Open Arms is open to U.S. service men and women on leave specific to the following criteria: Active duty military on temporary leave from a foreign duty station, returning home with orders to return to their foreign duty station after their brief R&R.
Operation Open Arms has been nationally acclaimed for its support of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Founder John “Giddy Up” Bunch once turned down former President George W. Bush’s invitation for ‘personal thanks’ about the operation because he had made a promise six months prior to take an Army sergeant out on a charter.
To find out more about Operation Open Arms, go to its Web site at www.operationopenarms.com