Operation Open Arm’s Bunch honored with ‘Junonia Award’
Captain John “Giddy-Up” Bunch, the founder of Operation Open Arms, was one of three Lee County residents recognized May 9 for their efforts in promoting the area.
In honor of the National Travel and Tourism Week, the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, along with the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, recognized 10 Lee County individuals and businesses during the third annual Chrysalis Awards at Harborside Event Center.
The Junonia Award was presented to three individuals and the Chrysalis Award was presented to seven businesses during the trade show and luncheon.
Bunch was one of three people who received the Junonia. The other two were Barbara Manzo, the director of Lee County Parks and Recreation, and Tony Lapi, the chairman of Visit Florida.
“A prolonged standing ovation was rendered when it was disclosed OOA had served all 50 states, 2,004 U.S. troops, including 148 Navy Seals and Special Operation Forces. and performed 95 weddings at no cost to our troops,” Bunch said. “It was a thrill to be accepted by so many. To be a Pine Island charity and be voted best in Fort Myers, that blew my mind, a total validation of our extent and reach of Operation Open Arms.”
On April 29, history was made for OOA when U.S. Marine Cpl. Jonathan Taylor became the 2,000th U.S. serviceman/woman to receive free benefits, valued at $3,500 a week. The Visitor and Convention Bureau created the Junonia Award in 2006, so individuals could be recognized for their leadership and dedication throughout the local tourism community.
“Only two Pine Island residents have ever received this award for exceptional service to the community, the late Sally Tapager and Elaine McLaughlin,” Bunch said. “Both of these extraordinary Pine Island women helped, encouraged, and supported Operation Open Arms unconditionally. We do share a common thread. Rare awards usually find their way to women and men who refuse to quit.”
OOA, which was founded in 2005, has a mission “to provide U.S. service men and women visiting Southwest Florida every conceivable benefit during their two-week combat leave or return from a foreign duty station.”
Bunch said he decided to start the organization due to a personal experience in 1971 that instilled a vivid memory that stuck with him over the years of when he was in the service. He said when he was a young 1/LT in the USMC, he was walking through the Washington, D.C. airport when three Vietnam War protesters spit on his uniform, called him a few names and pushed him.
“Things became really ugly really fast and my amateur boxing skills served me well,” Bunch said. “It was this day which profoundly changed me forever.”
His oath to himself was that “one-day I will figure out a way to treat our men and women in uniform better than I was treated.”
That day became a reality when Spc. Travis Downes, who now works on the island, asked him where he could go fishing from shore or pier before he had to go back to Iraq. Bunch, a charter fishing captain, provided the service free.
“Heading back to Iraq sealed the deal,” Bunch said. “Operation Open Arms really began from this innocent request.”
Although OOA has received countless awards, recognition from two sitting United States presidents, and national success, Bunch said he is most proud of giving others a unique way or means to serve their country for the first time.
“For those who have already served their country and perhaps missed the feeling of service before self, (they are given) an opportunity to serve again,” Bunch said. “Operation Open Arms is about real service and making a difference in the lives of our troops.”
The seven businesses that were recognized with a Chrysalis Award Wednesday included Miracle Baseball for sales and marketing; Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation for eco-innovation; Ding Darling Wildlife Society for education; Boston Red Sox for sports; Florida Repertory Theatre for cultural; Ensite, Inc. for sustainability and Scott Fischer Enterprises for business development.
The Chrysalis Award is given due to the partnership created between a business and the tourism community.
“We always look forward to the Chrysalis Awards ceremony since it’s a way to honor the hardworking members of our community who drive tourism, fuel job growth and continue to make Lee County an ideal place for visitors,” Visitor and Convention Bureau Executive Director Tamara Pigott said in a prepared statement.