The United States Army Nurse Corps was formally established by the U.S. Congress in 1901. It is one of the six medical special branches of officers which – along with medical enlisted soldiers – comprise the Army Medical Department, according to Wikipedia.
Heather Zuniga is a Ripley native and 1991 graduate of Ripley High School. In 1995 she became active with the Army as part of the Army Nurse Corps where she remained until her retirement in 2016 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Although Zuniga went on active duty in 1995, she originally enlisted in the Army Reserves at the age of 17, while she was still attending Ripley High School. At the time, the 473rd Medical Company was located by the Ripley Elementary School.
“I enlisted that September and I drilled that whole year,” Zuniga said.
At the end of the year, she received a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship and was then transferred from the Reserves to the ROTC. From there Zuniga attended UK and obtained her Bachelors Degree. She then went on to get her commission as a Second Lieutenant.
Zuniga focused her career on nursing, from labor and delivery, to emergency room, and then on to the operating room, where she spent almost 10 years.
She then went back to school to receive her masters degree and spent the last part of her career as a nurse practitioner.
“I enjoyed the OR, I like that high-paced atmosphere with a small group of people working together,” Zuniga said. “When I switched to nurse practitioner, it opened up new things. It wasn’t just taking care of that one person, it was their whole family.”
Zuniga served as the officer-in-charge for Fort Knox’s Warrior Transition Battalion Health Clinic, a clinic that provided healthcare to wounded warriors returning from overseas deployments. She said the clinic included a lab as well as a pharmacy where they were able to assist will the needs of the service member’s entire family.
Although she was never stationed overseas, Zuniga said she was sent on several deployments and spent almost a year in Iraq.
“We were one of the first hospitals in, so they were kind enough to let us be one of the first hospitals out,” Zuniga said.
Zuniga said her favorite part of her military career was the Army medicine aspect. She said she enjoyed being out with the soldiers.
“I felt like it gave me something that was a little bit more unique than just going to the hospital or clinic everyday,” Zuniga said. “I really did enjoy going to the range, or the fields to take care of soldiers, that’s what you train to do.”
Zuniga’s time in the military was very special to her and she said she enjoyed being able to do what she chose to do.
“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows everyday,” Zuniga said. “Sure, there are sunshine and rainbows, but there are some not so fun days too. I enjoyed my time and I feel it was my privilege to serve.”
When she returned from active duty, she told her parents that it was “the best, worst experience of her life.”
“You wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Zuniga said. “But if you’re going to be there, it’s a pretty remarkable job.”
Since retiring from the military, Zuniga has assisted with a few ROTC programs and has been a part of a pet therapy program as well. Zuniga is currently employed as the school nurse at Ravenswood Grade School through the Jackson County Board of Education.
Zuniga resides in Ripley where she is raising four children, Jonathan, a 2019 graduate of Ripley High School, and triplets, Gabe, Gavin, and Grace, who are currently seniors at Ripley High. All four are on prospective paths to civil service careers, according to Zuniga.
“Grace is doing her process for the Naval Academy appointment,” Zuniga said. “Her and Gabe have both applied for ROTC scholarships, and Gavin is potentially going to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) next week to enlist.”
Military runs in their blood and Zuniga said she is really proud of all her children, even if they decide not to following the military branch of service as part of their future careers. She said she feels they have served their time as well.
Zuniga is very excited and “humbled” having been asked to be the Grand Marshall in the Ripley Veterans Day Parade.
“I was really humbled and speechless,” Zuniga said. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t driving when I took the phone call.”
Ripley has always been known for it’s small town warmth and Zuniga said she is truly appreciative of the opportunity she has been given.
“I feel it was my privilege and honor to serve, and to be able to do what I wanted to do,” Zuniga said. “I appreciate and value the gratitude I have been shown. I am truly humbled.”
The Ripley Veterans Day parade begins at 10 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 11 and is followed by a special ceremony on the Jackson County Courthouse Lawn at 11 a.m., where Zuniga will be the guest speaker.