Operation Open Arms has done it again. Since 2005, Founder John "Giddy-Up" Bunch has enabled U.S. service men and women visiting Southwest Florida to received benefits during their combat leave or return from foreign duty.
Besides countless weddings, OOA has reached out to area businesses in Lee County and helped provide R&R to those who protect this great country of ours.
That was the case last week with three Marines who refer to each other as "life brothers" -Doug Meyer from Cape Coral, Jose Isa, who grew up in Tampa, and Mike Piro, a native of the Bronx, New York.
The three "team leaders" had just returned from eight months spent in "mud huts" where they were stationed in the "middle of nowhere" in the same platoon in Afghanistan. All three were riflemen in an infantry battalion.
Meyer was on his second tour. His first was in Iraq.
"We got helo'ed (helicopter) in, stayed in mud huts, then we moved around four times and pushed the Taliban back and out of the area and set up location from there," he said about his recent experience overseas.
Meyer almost lost his life when Taliban forces shot at him. A bullet ricocheted off his riflescope causing cuts and bruises.
"We were fighting for about an hour that day on one of my last missions. I came around the corner with my rifle up when a bullet hit my scope. I guess it curved just enough to go right past my face. All the shrapnel from the scope peppered my face," he said.
Luckily, Meyer was wearing protective eyewear. At first he thought he was hit in the face. When he found out he wasn't shot, he got up and started firing again.
"It didn't blind me, and all I had was a couple of scratches. The scope pretty much saved my life," he said.
Meyer admitted to never having heard about Operation Open Arms before his mother told him about the organization, its founder and benefits military personnel have received while back overseas deployments.
"My mom told me that he loved the fact that we were infantry men," said Meyer. Bunch, a professional fishing guide based out of St. James City, is a former Marine as well.
"These three kids are the real deal," he said. "They were 75 to 100 yards away from the fighting. They are quite exceptional young men."
Cape Coral's Kim Meyer first heard about OOA when she was registering her son's license at a division of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
"When I was renewing his tag, someone mentioned OOA does things for military personnel when they return from deployment. Shortly after I saw an article about a wedding OOA had done. So, I looked online, saw a great website with person after person relating what a great program it is, and I contacted (Bunch)," she said.
Kim said she didn't have anything specific to set up and just relayed information about her son and his two friends. Bunch asked about their interests and recommended the Beach.
"He had a great idea and went with it," she said. "For the past month, we have been in constant contact. He has been so supportive and so positive. It's given me something to focus on. He's just been great."
That's when OOA's family of sponsors came to bat once again.
During their Beach hospitality, the three Marines enjoyed free resort stays. From July 24-26, they stayed at Pink Shell Resort. It was followed by three days at Silver Sands Resort.
"The Marines also enjoyed a fishing trip with Captain Kenny aboard the Sea Trek at the docks of Bonita Bill's Waterfront Cafe on Tuesday, July 26. The inclement weather didn't slow them down, either, as they reported to catch grouper and snapper during the trip.
"I grew up around boats, but I haven't been fishing in a long time. It was a great time. It brought back a lot of memories," said Doug.
After dining at LeeRoy Selmon's Restaurant in Fort Myers earlier in the week, the Marines were treated to dinner at Matanzas Inn Restaurant and Parrot Key Caribbean Grill. They also threw out the first pitches at a ballgame as guests of the Fort Myers Miracle.
Throughout the week, Meyer was in constant communication with Bunch.
"He'll text me and tell me, 'this is your next mission,'" joked Meyer. "Then he'll let us know where we should meet. He has everything planned out, and he speaks in military time."
Bunch hopes more businesses will open up their hearts to these brave young men. While some businesses do provide a service, OOA has to chip in so that other family members can enjoy the benefits with them. It's hard to say "no" sometimes.
"We really have to watch our pennies during these tough economic times. I hope the organization's account doesn't dry up," said Bunch.
The benefits have not gone unnoticed.
"It's so nice that they think about these men. They are really proud of our guys," said Kim.
Now that their overseas tours are over, the three Marines will be stationed in the states. Meyer will be at Marine Base Camp LeJeune in North Carolina for training purposes to finish his military career.
"Everyone has made us feel really appreciated here," said Doug. "It's a great feeling to come back and know that people care and want you to relax, kick back and have a good time. We appreciate it a lot."