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Operation Open Arms adds counseling services, takes soldiers for day of fishing

By Staff | Jun 2, 2009

Thanks to Operation Open Arms, soldiers visiting Lee County can now seek assistance with coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder free of charge.

Earlier this year, OOA founder Capt. John “Giddyup” Bunch put out a call to area counselors for their help with a growing problem among members of the military.

“In January of this year, I had read that more of our soldiers were dying from self-inflicted wounds than all of those kill in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan combined and I knew I had to do something about it,” said Bunch. “I then began calling area therapists to enlist their help and now we have a great team that will provide counseling pro bono.”

According to Bunch, members of the military can obtain counseling through the Veteran’s Administration, but the soldier would have to clear the need for treatment with his or her superior officer, wade through a mountain a paper work and possibly face the threat of the negative stigmatizement commonly associated to those who are in need of mental health treatment.

“In addition to avoiding the sigmatism frequently attached to any mental health issue, these soldiers are on leave for a limited time and often times are made to make a co-payment for services provided by the VA,” he said. “Our program is completely confidential and won’t cost the soldier a dime.”

The fledgling program has already caught national attention.

NBC’s Today Show was in town over the weekend to tape a fishing trip involving Bunch and a group of soldiers. The fishing charter and television crew departed from the Punta Rassa boat ramp early on Saturday morning for a day at sea.

The segment, scheduled to air this week, will feature Operation Open Arms’ expansion into counseling for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

During a gathering at the Tarpon Lodge in Pineland on Friday, Bunch not only recognized the nearly dozen mental health practitioners for their participation but his fleet of fishing guides as well.

“Many times, mental healing for our military comes in the form of a fishing trip and I am pleased to recognize some of the guides who have been with OOA since the beginning. They include Capt. David Dean and Capt. Chris Sanford,” Bunch said. “They are on the front line when it comes to the healing process and I know this because most of the guys I hear from simply say I just want to go fishing.”

Among the first counselors to join the OOA team was Mickey Lewin, LCSW, who has a practice at Pine Island Center.

“My family has been touched by suicide and when I heard the statistics about our military men and women, I know I had to help,” said Lewin.

Margery Runyan, LCSW, has a private practice in Bokeelia and first heard about Bunch’s effort about four months ago.

“Capt. Bunch e-mailed me and ask for help with this program, and of course I said yes, yes, yes. I love to help and I have had a lot of experience with trauma. I have worked with lots of addicts and survivors of many types of trauma and I go right to the heart of suffering,” said Runyan. “I feel this is an excellent opportunity to take a person from hell and bring them back. It is my calling to provide people with hope.”

Learning about OOA from an article in the Fort Myers Beach Observer three years ago, Dorothy Rodwell, a counselor from Fort Myers Beach, has also signed on as a professional mental health provider.

“I learned about John’s new program from a friend of mine who is a dentist that is a part of the OOA program and said to her that I wanted to do whatever it takes to help out. I do a lot of trauma work and even though it is mostly family related situations, I felt the troops deserve anything we can do for them,” said Rodwell. “Whatever I can do to help a military family I am happy to do. It makes my heart feel bigger.”

Also providing help from a wholistic angle is Lee Tapager from Healing Works Health Center in Matlacha.

“John first contacted me about two months ago and asked if I would be willing to participate. I had thought about calling him before when I saw something like this in a trade journal so I absolutely said yes,” Tapager said. “I specialize in acupuncture and Oriental medicine which will address issues with the whole system health care, This knowledge, I feel, has provided me with the skills to help with those suffering with PTSD.

“I have treated people with this disorder, but never members of the military, but I come from a military family and this is very important to me. Many times the service does not provide things our military really needs and I can teach them the different skills and nutritional habits that can help them turn off their sympathetic nervous system dominance which can lead to PTSD.”

Operation Open Arms has provided services to members of the military on leave to the Lee and Collier County area since 2005 and offers amenities such as free meals at area restaurants, lodging, gift certificates, guided fishing trips and now mental health care and more.

For more information about OOA, visit operationopenarms.com.