131st Airman first in fitness despite having to relearn to walk
By Senior Airman Nathan Dampf, 131st Bomb Wing
/ Published August 19, 2016
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- "If you don't start taking care of yourself, you may never walk again."
Doctors said this to Tech. Sgt. Ricardo Zuniga in 2006 after a head-on motorcycle accident nearly took his life.
"I broke four ribs, three vertebrate and my sternum," said Zuniga, a weapons load team chief with the 131st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "When the doctors looked at the x-rays, they found that my spinal cord was pinched. They had to do an emergency surgery to remove the weight off of it."
On July 2 of that year, Zuniga, on active duty at the time, was riding his motorcycle through the mountains near Aviano Air Base, Italy. A van rounded a curved road, veered into the Airman's lane and hit him head on. Zuniga flew off his motorcycle and through the van's windshield.
After a one-hour life-flight helicopter ride to the hospital, the 25-year-old Airman had to undergo multiple surgeries, and was bedridden for weeks.
"I couldn't walk," said Zuniga. "I had to be bathed in bed and fed by someone else. It was very difficult."
His battle to recover was a tough one. He spent 25 days in the hospital, and did physical therapy two or three hours daily for three months.
His doctors said his current weight put too much pressure on his spine. His weight was affecting his recovery.
"I ate and drank what I wanted," said Zuniga. "The doctors instructed me not to get out of shape, or it would have been very painful. That's when they said it may even prevent me from walking again."
Zuniga accepted the challenge to lose weight. For three months he used a walker to relearn how to walk. Despite the pain he still experienced, he wanted to extend his Air Force career.
"I was almost medically boarded," Zuniga said. "To not be, I was told I needed to pass a PT (Air Force physical fitness test) test with no waiver. So, I quit drinking and started working out and eating right. I lost 30 pounds and scored an 85 on the PT test."
In the years since, he's consistently scored Excellent on each annual PT test.
Today, he chooses to devote his time to train for - and win - body building competitions. He competed in two competitions at the Whiteman Classic held in November at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia. Nearly 200 people and 20 competitors took part in the first-of-its-kind event held in the area.
"I placed first in body building and second in physique," Zuniga said.
Zuniga also took second place in two separate categories during June's Muscle Mayhem event in Kansas City, Missouri . After turning his own physical fitness habits around, other Airmen now seek his advice on how to reach such an impressive physical condition.
"It's exciting because I can show the people I'm working with that I'm doing the same thing I'm talking about with them. I have to walk the walk."
Zuniga says he enjoys helping others and showing what that type of motivation can do.
"I've helped over 100 people online and about 20 face-to-face," he said. "I help them train for PT tests."
Because he's gone from one extreme to another, he says he's better able to motivate those who ask for help. He shows them pictures of his motorcycle accident and his scarred back from the surgeries.
"I don't like excuses," he said. "I ask them to come up with reasons why they are going to get the job done instead of excuses for not doing it. We all have 24 hours in a day and we have the choice how to utilize them."
Zuniga's physical fitness success is nothing but outstanding, but his performance in the 131st Bomb Wing has been recognized as well, his leadership said.
"His drive is not limited to his work capacity, but his personal life as well," said Chief Master Sgt. John Flaugher, the 131st wing weapons manager. "It is felt through our shop. He wants to be the best and strives to help others be their best. Others look to him as a leader and are always asking him questions that may be work related or personal.
"Tech. Sgt. Zuniga is a straightforward, hardworking Airman," continued Flaugher. "He is diligent in his job and has a strong attention to detail. He's always encouraging others and ready to help."
Zuniga has been working on the B-2 Spirit aircraft for 10 years and helped the wing pass the Nuclear Surety Inspection in August 2013. His continuity with the aircraft ensures that the Missouri Air National Guard continues to provide trained and ready forces to Whiteman's total-force team for all of its strategic deterrence and assurance missions.
Although his life path changed on a mountainside road a decade ago, Zuniga said he hopes that others see how physical fitness can help them conquer other life challenges and excel in all aspects of life.
"Ultimately, we all have one life. It's up to us to choose to live it."