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A room with a view: Silver Sands hosts military servicemembers with Operation Open Arms

March 31, 2017
By JESSICA SALMOND ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

When Specialist Tiana Ruano returned from her first-ever deployment to Kuwait, the first thing she wanted to do was go to Fort Myers Beach.

The 21-year-old of Lehigh Acres signed up for the U.S. Army just four days after her 19th birthday. Then, last year, she was sent on her first oversees rotation as a unit supply specialist.

Kuwait is full of sand, she said - but not much else.

Article Photos

Andrea Carriere accommodated Tiana Ruano and her parents Rosie and Angel (not pictured).

Photo by Jessica Salmond

"I didn't see any greenery for four or five months. Even the sky is orange and grey from the sand and dirt. It's depressing," she said. "My mom sent me a jar of Fort Myers Beach sand."

After she returned, Ruano was given a treat: a vacation to the beach at Silver Sands Resort, and free meals at Matanzas on the Bay and the Dog House, courtesy of Operation Open Arms.

Ruano is the 3,499th military member to participate in Operation Open Arm's trips.

Silver Sands has provided more than 400 free stays to members of the military since 2012.

"You can do the math and see what a donation that is," said master captain John "GiddyUp" Bunch, the founder of the organization. He is an honorably discharged Marine turned fishing guru with a merchant marine captain's license who has appeared on multiple TV fishing shows.

Operation Open Arts was started in 2005, and is a network of businesses, organizations and individuals that help set up weddings, visits and vacation for active duty military and veterans who otherwise could not afford it. It's operated entirely by volunteers.

Besides a relaxing getaway, one of Bunch's biggest focuses is helping provide immediate mental health care for military and veterans.

"We get same-day mental health care," he said. "We don't put a two- or three-week delay on it," he said.

As a 501(c)3, the organization is reliant on donations, but it's been successful: it's given $3.5 million in benefits to soldiers; been recognized by two U.S. Presidents for its work; and featured thrice on the Today Show for its efforts.

Bunch is modest - he said the real story of his charity are the hoteliers and restaurateurs who step up and provide their rooms and meals, free of charge.

Andrea Carriere, owner of Silver Sands, didn't even know Bunch in 2005, but when she got a call from him asking if she'd donate a weekend stay for a military member, she didn't hesitate.

"I said 'yes dear,'" Carriere said. "Free stay."

Her husband, brother and sister all served in the Marines during the conflict in Iraq.

"They're fighting on the front lines for me, and it makes me, my business, my life, my country safe," she said. "So I'll give what I can give."

Open Arms organizes the rest of the activities for the military men and women who lay their heads at Silver Sands - the vacation activities are up to the person to choose, but if they want to go fishing, parasailing, boating or anything else, the organization makes it happen.

The stay in paradise has meant a lot to those who spend the time at Silver Sands: Carriere was given honor coins by many of the servicemembers who stayed with her. She was also given an American flag flown on a Black Hawk overseas. She's since donated the coins and the flag to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) 10097 off of Pine Ridge Road, where it is proudly displayed.

"Andrea treats our troops like royalty," Bunch said.

Ruano wasn't sure what she'd do with her vacation time, but she was glad to get away to the retreat of a Silver Sands cottage. She returned from Kuwait last month and was given a 30-day break; next week, she'll be headed back to work in Fort Bliss, Texas. She said she wasn't sure what to expect, but she was glad her family was close-by so she could spend the weekend with her parents, Angel and Rosie Ruano. But, Ruano had at least one plan for her vacation: "I'm going to end my trip with the beach," she said.

To to donate to Operation Open Arms visit where secured donations may be made or mail to Operation Open Arms, PO. Box 1, St. James City, FL 33956.



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