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Conquering Fear

Airman's portrait.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Destiny Zuniga, a traffic management specialist with the 182nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, Illinois Air National Guard, poses for a portrait in Peoria, Ill., Dec. 6, 2021. Zuniga mobilized for COVID-19 state active duty in 2020 while still enrolled as a college student. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Wynndermere Shaw)

Airmen walking through McCormick Place alternative care facility.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Destiny Zuniga, left, a traffic management specialist with the 182nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, Illinois Air National Guard, leads 182nd Airlift Wing commander Col. Daniel McDonough on a tour of the McCormick Place alternative care facility in Chicago, May 5, 2020. The alternative care facility was built with the help of Illinois National Guardsmen to support the state’s healthcare infrastructure in the event of a patient overflow caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Lealan Buehrer)

Airman driving forklift.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Destiny Zuniga, a traffic management specialist with the 182nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, Illinois Air National Guard, operates a forklift in Peoria, Ill., Dec. 6, 2021. Zuniga mobilized for COVID-19 state active duty in 2020 while still enrolled as a college student. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Wynndermere Shaw)

PEORIA, Ill. --

“I was scared, so I took a lot of vitamins,” said Senior Airman Destiny Zuniga. The 182nd Logistics Readiness Squadron traffic management specialist had initial concerns after being placed on state active duty with the Illinois Air National Guard for a COVID-19 domestic operation at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago in March 2020. Her mother even sent soluble vitamins packets to dissolve in water alongside her vitamin C and D tablets. Zuniga said she took this cocktail of vitamins daily in hopes of avoiding contracting the virus.

“We didn't really know what this virus was or how it affected us,” said Zuniga. “My family was freaking out, and I was freaking out.”

Zuniga said although she struggled with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, she didn't let fear deter her from readily volunteering to assist in the relief efforts.

“If they say they need help, I am always one of the first to say I’ll do it,” she said. “That’s part of the reason I enlisted.”

Avoiding the virus would be only one of the many challenges she would soon have to overcome if she were to make a difference as an Airman during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The original mission was to establish a makeshift hospital at McCormick Place in less than a week.

“They wanted us to build 500 beds in five days,” said Zuniga. She would often find herself overwhelmed in the beginning, taking frequent bathroom breaks to gather her thoughts and calm her nerves. “The first week was the most hectic. We worked 16 hour days,” she said.

The scope of the operation broadened as the pandemic worsened, spanning three different locations across Northern Illinois and an additional 4-month time commitment with widely varying work responsibilities.

Zuniga was made responsible for assembling and sorting medical supplies for future COVID patients.. The first dilemma she faced, apart from avoiding contracting the virus, was how inefficient the process was and how cumbersome the dialog was between her and her civilian counterparts aiding in the relief efforts.  Adding to the frustration was the reluctance everyone had to offer feedback. She said her commanding officer would set expectations and give opportunities for input and opinions, but everyone was reluctant to share their ideas.

Zuniga said sorting through the inefficiencies and resolving conflict made juggling college that much harder. She had volunteered for COVID-19 relief efforts even though she was juggling a full college course load at the time. 

“I was still in school full time!” said Zuniga.

Despite all the difficulty she faced, Zuniga said giving up was never an option. While many of her coworkers complained about the risk they were assuming and the circumstances they were in, she concluded if she were to make a difference, she would have to confront and work through the adversity in front of her.

Zuniga said the days were long and she didn't know when they would start or end. However, at the end of the duty day she’d immediately return to her room to write papers, take tests, or often have Zoom calls with her professors past midnight. Zuniga said continuing her education while serving was very important to her in order to serve in a greater capacity someday as an FBI or DEA agent.

In addition to continuing her education on state active duty, Zuniga’s coworkers said she tackled and resolved problems at work as well. Senior Airman Cara Motter, a fellow 182nd Logistics Readiness Squadron Airman who worked alongside Zuniga, said she distinctly remembered Zuniga’s assertiveness in determining the most efficient way to complete a task and then advocating that idea to the commanding officer.

“Sometimes you need somebody to stand up and take the lead on a certain job, and I think she was really good at that,” said Motter.

Zuniga handled her work responsibilities so well she was hand-picked to serve on a small team that would be transported from the McCormick Place to a warehouse in Roschelle, Illinois, to assemble and store medical kits for future pandemics or natural disasters..

She recalls towards the climax of the operation when her commanding officer, 1st Lt. Jon Kent, requested her to stay after work. She said she vividly remembers him saying, “Your base commander, Col. McDonough, is coming to visit, and I want you to give him a tour.”

Zuniga recalled the fear she initially had assuming such a big responsibility.

“I was an airman first class, at the time,” she said. “I was freaking out!”

However, Zuniga worked past her concerns by remembering the confidence 1st Lt. Kent had in her. Zuniga said relying on the faith of others in times of self-doubt is a source of confidence. She told herself, “Clearly he sees something in me that maybe I can't see myself right now.”

Zuniga said when McDonough arrived, she took a deep breath and said something she always says before an important basketball game in high school: “It’s game time.” She successfully escorted the base commander around the area of operation and explained in detail all events that took place from beginning to end.

At the end of the operation, Zuniga received 10 Airman of the Week awards, passed all her classes with an above-average grades and was personally responsible for the efficient packing of medical kits that expedited the build-up and teardown of McCormick Place.  Zuniga said in times of fear and uncertainty, courage is paramount if one is to make a difference and it is impossible to grow without such adversity.