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Charity group seeks to bring soldiers home

December 24, 2013
By CHUCK BALLARO ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A local charitable organization that works to give aid to members of the military and their families is hoping it can bring three local servicemen home for the holidays.

Operation Open Arms has formulated a unique, albeit risky, strategy in making that goal a reality by applying for a credit card that gives reward points that can be used toward items such as free flights.

Joel Grant Black, an army specialist from North Fort Myers who is stationed at Fort Lewis in Seattle, will be coming home this Christmas, thanks to the hard work of the charitable organization.

According to Diane Miller, Joel's mother, the family had no financial means to get him home.

"He was supposed to make those plans in August, but he was on alert. They gave them their release on Oct. 15. The normal round-trip was $349, but by the time he got clearance there were no more military discounts and it was $1,200," Miller said. "He doesn't make that in a month."

Miller said Black was willing to come home on leave in February, but Miller hadn't seen him home on Christmas in three years and said she wanted him home for Christmas.

That's when a friend, Michael Braun, alerted her to Captain John "Giddy-up" Bunch, founder of Operation Open Arms (OOA), a small shoestring operation that has helped hundreds of service men and women and their families.

Bunch came up with a plan to bring Black home

"We found out about this credit card that was being promoted and I gave them the information about OOA. Because we don't have employees or a payroll, and because I used me financial information as well, we got it," Bunch said, adding it will probably be a one-time use.

It was enough to get Black home for the holidays.

"I've never met him. He's like an angel. He called me and said he knew my situation and would do what he could to bring my son home for Christmas," Miller said.

As of last week, Bunch, who was out of town, had hoped to return home soon to St. James City to find enough donations in the charity's P.O. Box to cover the ticket.

He also had hoped to have enough money to cover two other local troops seeking to have Christmas home, one a Navy Seal stationed in California and another a Marine sniper from Kuwait.

"We hope to surpass Joe's Black's requirement because there are two more," Bunch said. "My hope is that we'll be able to pay for Black's ticket with the OOA donations via publicity. Then we'll be able to bring another home. That's $1,000 and another free ticket."

Because of the sensitive nature of their service, their names could not be divulged.

On March 24, Black made news when he came home after a 14-month deployment in Afghanistan to a hero's welcome, put together by Miller and the local television stations, at Southwest Florida International Airport. Cape Coral Mayor John Sullivan even declared it Joel Grant Black Day.

There will be no pomp and circumstance this time, Miller said.

""He said 'everyone in my unit needed this, not me. I didn't die for my country,'" Miller said. "The true heroes were the 10 people we lost while we were there."

Since 2005, OOA has performed deeds for service people in tough situations. It has picked up more than 2,700 servicemen coming home from the airport in a limousine.

"A great charity is defined by doing whatever it takes to make something happen as opposed to making excuses to not make it happen," Bunch said. "We compete against the bigger charities so we have to think of any way possible."



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