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Local fire chief tries to save Operation Open Arms

By Staff | Sep 30, 2009

After seeing a WINK News television special featuring a financially-strapped military outreach program that provides free vacations and services to soldiers on leave in Southwest Florida, Upper Captiva Fire District chief Tim Higgins knew he had to do something.

Higgins approached the local firefighters union hoping that he could secure some kind of donation for Operation Open Arms, an organization that he says is not only noble, it’s essential.

“I just thought it was a great thing to be doing for these soldiers – for them to know that they can come home, go out, relax, enjoy themselves and not have to worry about what it’s going to cost them. I just think it’s a very noble thing for us to do for our soldiers,” Higgins said.

District vice president for the Florida Professional Firefighters Eloy Ricardo agreed.

“I went to Eloy and spoke to him and our local union and told them about the program and they were happy to get involved in it,” Higgins explained. “Because we have a lot of firefighters that were in the military, everyone understands what these soldiers go through. I think the military, the fire service and the police are all extensions of each other.”

Ricardo said that when Higgins told the FPF about the financial plight of Operation Open Arms, they saw a great opportunity to help. The FPF reached out to Lee and Collier county and were able to make a sizeable donation from revenue produced by Florida Firefighter license plate sales.

“What people don’t understand is by supporting the Florida Firefighter tag plate, that Florida tag money goes back to local charities. This was the charity that we were able to send the money to,” Ricardo noted. “In these tough economic times, people are in need and we’re fortunate that we’re able to give something back to the community, especially the soldiers. Many of our members have kids overseas. It’s a brotherhood and a sisterhood and whatever we can do to help the soldiers out, we’re going to do it.”

Approaching its sixth year in providing everything from free fishing trips to free posttraumatic stress disorder counseling, Operation Open Arms is starting to feel the strain – and so is the one man who runs the entire organization from his St. James City home, Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch.

“I was really taken aback when Tim called me after the WINK News segment that ran a few weeks ago. The WINK anchorperson was Maggie Crane, and she thought that it would be best to show the grassroots organization of Operation Open Arms by coming into my home and showing that Operation Open Arms, even though it’s been honored by two U.S. presidents in the last 13 months, is run out of my home in St. James City,” Bunch said, noting that all of his equipment and paperwork – more than 8,000 records of correspondence since the inception of the program – are stored in his home.

Bunch has been supporting the organization through donations and his fishing charter business for the past five years, but he says that by April 19, 2010 – the program’s anniversary – it will be time for OOA to move out of his house and into an office space.

“I’ve been running myself around the track for five straight years,” he added. “I can’t wait to receive some funding so that I can hire an administrative assistant to handle the average of 125 to 150 inquiries a day. I’ve even got the VA in Fort Myers sending me their PTSD people.”

According to Bunch, more U.S. troops took their own lives than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in January of 2009.

“I took it upon myself to start our country’s first pro bono posttraumatic stress disorder clinic,” Bunch said, noting that he’s recruited more than 21 licensed, local psychiatrists to work with troops struggling with PTSD, free of charge.

With only $13,000 in OOA coffers, Bunch is worried but hopeful about the future of the organization.

The $5,000 donation from Higgins and Ricardo is an excellent start, Bunch noted.

“Because Tim saw a disparity of one organization doing so much and receiving so little, he chose to get involved,” he said. “I simply can’t go on alone.

“The donation means everything from the standpoint of being able to stay alive and live another day, and that’s what we’re trying to do between now and April 19, 2010. Based on two sitting U.S. presidents coming to Fort Myers to pay tribute to Operation Open Arms, I really think it’s time to move the operation out of my home, stop supporting it through my fishing charter business and ask the generous people of Captiva and Sanibel for donations to move this great organization out of my home. It’s gotten too big. It’s no longer a Lee and Collier county program, it’s a national program. It’s the most far-reaching, extensive military outreach program in the United States and we’ve never turned anybody down,” Bunch said, noting that he can count on one hand how many donors have contacted him from the Captiva and Sanibel area, including the Lazy Flamingo and Jensen’s Marina.

“We like to contribute as much as we can, especially with what these kids are going through overseas,” said John Jensen of Jensen’s Marina. “It means a lot to us. We do all we can. Whatever John needs – a room, bait – we help out as much as we can because we think it’s a great cause and we enjoy doing it.”

Indeed, it seems that most of OOA’s contributor’s consider their donations to be much more than charity. For them, giving back to the soldiers is a necessity.

“We appreciate what they do, and I just so happen to be fortunate enough that the union is available and guys like Eloy realize how important it is that we provide for these kids. RIght now, John Bunch is the only person that really keeps this thing moving,” Higgins said. “I think that with help, maybe in the future, this program could extend throughout the entire United States.”

And then Higgins threw down the proverbial gauntlet.

“We’d like to challenge the other agencies out there – police, fire departments, anyone out there that has the ability to go out and get funds,” he added. “Something as simple as gas money for charter boats can make all the difference.”

To learn more about Operation Open Arms or to make a donation, please visit http://operationopenarms.org or e-mail Capt. John Bunch at jbunchie@aol.com.