WASHINGTON — Operation Open Arms provides a free one-week vacation in southwest Florida or Maryland for active-duty service members returning from an overseas deployment or assignment.
Since its founding over 11 years ago, 3,396 troops have taken advantage of that offer, said Merchant Marine Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch, who started Operation Open Arms in 2005 to provide service members home on leave with free or discounted services and activities before they return to their overseas duty stations.
For his many acts of kindness and charity, Bunch will be presented with the Outstanding Civilian Service Award at the Chief of Staff of the Army Salute during a Twilight Tattoo ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia, Sept. 15.
The charity, of which he is the founder and director, has no paid employees, he said. Everyone is a volunteer. He credits a vast network of sponsors for helping defray expenses and donations are accepted, he said.
Operation Open Arms’ website provides more details of eligibility requirements for the free services offered.
THE GENESIS OF OPEN ARMS
After being commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps out of Quantico, Virginia, Bunch traveled to nearby Washington National Airport to catch a flight home. He was wearing his dress uniform, and it was 1969, the year the Vietnam War began.
At the airport, he encountered a group of war protesters who spit on his uniform, he said.
“I took great offense to that, as all good Marines would, and we proceeded to have our issues right there,” he said. “I promised myself that one day I would treat U.S. troops better than what I was treated.”
After separating from the Marine Corps in 1976, Bunch became a well-known fishing guide in south Florida, appearing on numerous TV fishing shows.
One day, he was doing a TV fishing show and came ashore for a lunch break at a nearby restaurant. A Soldier at the restaurant, Spc. Travis Downes, recognized him from TV and asked him where he could find the best nearby fishing spot to catch at least one fish before he deployed back to Iraq.
Bunch told him to meet him the following Saturday and he would personally take him fishing. The Soldier demurred, saying he couldn’t afford Bunch’s services.
“And I said, ‘I don’t recall asking you for money,'” Bunch remembered. “‘This is something I’m going to do, not just for you, but for me. It will make me feel better about an event that happened in my life a long time ago.'”
Downes asked if his father could accompany them since he too was a fan of Bunch’s fishing shows. The three men ended up spending the next day together fishing.
“We couldn’t have asked for a finer day of fishing,” Bunch said. “The fish were everywhere. And, two dolphins were playing near the boat too. It was almost like a magical fishing trip.”
On the way home, Bunch felt so good about the experience that he conceived the idea for Open Arms. It started out small, he said, but then in April 2005, TV’s Today Show featured Bunch and his work with troops. So many emails flooded in that the traffic temporarily shut down his website.
Bunch admitted he never intended to be a founder of a charity, but events in his life steered him to that calling.
MORE ABOUT BUNCH
Asked about his nickname “GiddyUp,” Bunch explained that when he was 10, he fell off a horse and was knocked unconscious. When he came to, a girl was giving him artificial respiration. He looked up at her and asked, “Am I in Heaven?” And she replied, “No giddyup,” and the name just stuck.
Over the years, Bunch has become a famous and respected professional saltwater fishing guide in Florida. He has appeared on countless TV fishing shows, including shows on ESPN, and he has been featured in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the Florida Sportsman Magazine.
Bunch even met his wife during a TV fishing show, when he was 62. (He’s 69 now.) The reason service members can choose to vacation in either Maryland or Florida, he said, is because his wife is from Maryland, and they maintain a residence there as well.
Besides running Open Arms, Bunch still serves a merchant marine captain, skippering 500-ton and larger vessels around U.S. ports.