A Pine Island and Cape Coral resident were treated to a special surgery free of charge last month as a thank you for what they have done for their country.
Every year, Collins Vision of Fort Myers does a program called Giving Eyes, which this year focused on the men and women who have either served in the military or are currently in the service.
Travis Downes of Pine Island and Brett Pezzella of Cape Coral were the two recipients to receive advanced surface ablation eye surgery, worth $3,900, for free.
"No way I could have afforded it on my own just a blessing," Downes said. "I was fortunate I got picked."
In 2000, he joined the Army and served for six years until 2006. Downes said he wanted to join the Army because of his family history, along with wanting the experience.
The marketing director of Collins Vision contacted Operation Open Arms because she knew it was a local charity that was also reaching out to the same people. Between OOA Founder Captain John "GiddyUp" Bunch getting the word out to people he knew, as well as through other advertised ways, applications and letters from friends and family were sent to Collins Vision to be considered for the free surgery.
Each member of the office chose his or her top two candidates for the procedure, which eventually dwindled down to the top two.
Bunch said he sent in the justification for Downes.
"I did so because if it wasn't for Travis asking me to take him fishing back in 2005, the concept of Operation Open Arms wouldn't have been there," he said.
Downes said he was at lunch with his mom at Waterfront when he met Bunch. The next thing he knew Bunch took him and his father out on the boat free of charge so they could enjoy a day of fishing. He explained the gesture as "kindness out of his own heart."
"I can't thank him enough," Downes said. "I will forever be in debt to him for all he has done."
He said he hopes to see OOA continue, which can only be done by individuals donating to the cause. Downes encourages individuals to visit the website operationopenarms.org for more information.
One of the reasons Collins Vision chose advanced surface ablation, a blade-free surgery, as the procedure of choice is because it is the only laser approved eye surgery by most of the military branches because nothing happens at different altitudes or pressures, making it safe for the men and women.
Bunch said this is the first time OOA has played a helping hand in fixing U.S. troops eyes.
"Things we have done outside of our mission statement to me defines what a great charity is," he said.
OOA mission statement is "to provide U.S. Service men and women visiting Southwest Florida every conceivable benefit during their two week combat leave or return from a foreign duty station."
The Florida native and Pine Island resident since he was a young boy, wore glasses for 20 years before he had the operation on Aug. 17, which took only 5 minutes to complete. Downes said the first week was the hardest in terms of recovery because of light sensitivity and irritation of the eyes.
"I can see a big difference for sure," he said about his vision.
Although he was nervous about the procedure, he said it was well worth it because of the clarity he can now see.
Downes said Dr. Collins is one of the best in the area, adding that he would recommend him to anybody.
"A real good guy," he said.