2012-02-08 / Opinion

Giddyup, Johnny, and Godspeed

THE LAST TIME I SAW JOHN BUNCH HE WAS vanishing into the foreboding night like Capt. Ahab setting out in pursuit of Moby Dick: “They plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic,” wrote Melville.

It wasn’t quite that bad, of course, but almost. John was just departing the prettiest little low-key beach retreat in Florida, Jensen’s Twin Palm Marina on the west Coast’s Captiva Island, run by the Jensen brothers. They’re John’s kind of people. Mine, too.

As midnight approached, he was only trying to get home to Bokeelia, lying three or four miles east across the black water on the naked northern nose of Pine Island like a distant, twinkling bar. Not star, bar. But given John’s history and personality, his departure reminded me of the white whale’s ship-borne pursuers. He plunged like fate into the lone northern stretches of Pine Island Sound.

John is a maverick from what I can see, and a man of compulsion, like Ahab. There are other similarities, too. They both chase fish (Ahab chases bigger, paler fish); they both use boats (Ahab’s comes equipped with sails and John’s relies on a 225 horsepower Honda that gets 3.5 miles to the gallon); and they’re both captains.

Ahab is known as a wacko, but John is known as Capt. John “Giddyup” Bunch, a respected fishing guide rated one of the best for those who want to ply the waters of the Southwest coast.

And I don’t care where you claim to “live” — Peoria, Palm Beach Gardens, Punta Gorda or Punkin Center, Kansas (one of my favorite places). If you haven’t plied those waters you haven’t actually lived. Not at least around here.

Henceforth, I shall quit first-naming John and call him Capt. Bunch, with all due respect.

When it comes to compulsion, the biggest difference between Capt. Bunch and Capt. Ahab is that Capt. Bunch’s compulsion won’t get everybody else around him killed, like Capt. Ahab’s. When you go out with Capt. Bunch, you will come home with the fish. The fish will not go home with you.

On the contrary, Capt. Bunch is in the nonprofit business of saving lives, or least hearts and minds — those of American servicemen and women coming back from war, on leave, and seeking a vacation, a wedding ceremony, a respite from duty and a chance to have all that without going into deep debt (enlisted troops in particular do not make diddlysquat).

So, in 2005 he founded — and he remains the incarnate — Operation Open Arms (www.operationopenarms.com).

The organization is one with the man. It has a single, white-whale compulsion, if you will: “To provide service men and women visiting Southwest Florida every conceivable benefit during their two-week combat leave or return from a foreign duty station,” he explains.

Without them having to pay for it, of course.

That’s why so many merchants and business owners support him in the effort, starting with the Jensen brothers.

Capt. Bunch is nothing if not honorable. He doesn’t use the term “nonprofit” like almost every other outfit with 501(c)(3) status uses it — as a chance to do some good while making a very comfortable salary for the managers, founders or top dogs.

Nonprofit compensation can range from roughly half-a-million dollars a year or more (various health or hospice organization leaders pull down that money), to $80,000 or $100,000 for managers of feeton the-ground help outfits for the poor or the besieged-by-emergency.

By contrast, “nonprofit” in the context of Capt. John “Giddyup” Bunch means just that. Absolutely no profit for anybody, including him. No payroll whatsoever for being OOA’s receptionist/secretary/ answering service/director/founder.

Which may make me the only commentator in America describing the nonprofit thing literally, at least at this moment in time.

In seven years, Capt. Bunch has managed to recruit roughly 150 businesses to help provide soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines the hallmark standard of real thanks: a warm embrace of more than words.

He helps them marry and honeymoon. He organizes free limo service, lodging, restaurants, fishing charters, golf, tennis, kayaking, boating, emergency dental care (that’s no small thing for troops, sometimes). And he provides them something he understands well: treatment of post traumatic stress disorder.

Now in his 60s and raised on the barrier islands of South Carolina, Capt. Bunch is a former Marine (1969 to 1975) who did not enjoy, with his peers, a welcomehome embrace from many Americans when they returned from foreign duty stations such as Vietnam.

The young men and women he’s helped during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — about 1,900 of them so far, he says — will get that embrace from Operation Open Arms and its generous contributors if they come to Southwest Florida, and need or want it.

“This is the real secret of OOA,” he says. “You can demonstrate your love of country instead of flapping your jaws about it. We’ve helped 1,976 U.S. troops, provided 92 free weddings, and I’ve done more funerals than I wish to remember.”

I find that extraordinary.

But it won’t last forever, unless Capt. Bunch can get some help from the rest of us. After all, he isn’t going to do this forever.

You think it’s because he’s tired? Don’t count on it. In fact, he’s newly married. But tired might have a little something to do with it, too.

What he needs to do now, he figures, is change his approach.

Here’s what he told me he needs.

“OOA needs a professional grant writer. OOA needs an office. OOA needs an administrative assistant. OOA needs a director to soon take my place. Most of all, OOA needs contributions to pay for all the things associated with a legit charity, like the American Red Cross has. They have a well-paid staff. They have a beautiful office, vans and cars. They have an advertising budget.

“I go to the post office after a charter hoping to see a check in Box 101.”

I don’t think Capt. Bunch cares about some of that — the beautiful office and what-not.

But he could use some help, and so could the young men and women coming home from very difficult places.

Again, it’s here: www.operationopenarms.org. ¦

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