Terri Ann Daniels

By Paul Wood

Photo By Stephen Haas/The News-Gazette

URBANA — A lesson from serving on a live weapons crew:

“If you see the weapons troops running, just run,” said Senior Airman Terri Ann Daniels.

Now 48, she was the only woman in her weapons flight all four years of her enlistment while she trained pilots to use the weapons systems on fighter aircraft on an Arizona base during Operation Desert Storm.

An Air Force veteran who served from 1992 to 1996, she’s now a University of Illinois student and employee living in Urbana.

Daniels is a third-generation veteran.

“My grandfather was a World War II veteran. My mother, father and uncle all Vietnam veterans. My family never encouraged me to serve, but I always felt deep down that I wanted to serve,” she said.

After growing up in Arizona, with family in Danville, she didn’t immediately choose the service.

“I went into the military after being a corrections officer for four years and putting myself through school. I was at a crossroads,” Daniels said.

Daniels was accepted into the Los Angeles police academy at the time, “but I felt that if I didn’t serve that I would regret it,” she said.

She wanted to be sent overseas, in part to escape Arizona, but that’s where they stationed her.

She was an Aircraft Armament Systems Specialist, who wired and loaded munitions in the 461st Fighter Squadron, with the F-15E Strike Eagle and the 550th Fighter Squadron with F-16s.

“I trained pilots in the desert of Arizona to go to the other desert,” she said.

Daniels stood out.

“I was the only woman in my (weapons flight) all four years of my enlistment and one of only five or six women in the entire squadron. I worked on a three-man load crew with two fantastic men that became like brothers to me,” Daniels said.

The experience was unforgettable.

“I have missed the flight line more than I ever thought I would. I would do it again, and knowing what I know now, I would have stayed in,” she said.

But she left on a high point.

“At one point, my squadron was closing and moving overseas, and my flight nominated me for an incentive flight. I got to fly an F-15E — after that, I always wished I had signed up to fly. I would have flown anything they let me,” she said.

With a “pay it forward” attitude, she “carried over my sense of service to our country to local community service.”

She has been associated with the Eastern Illinois Foodbank for a number of years, first as a client and then as a volunteer.

Now, Daniels is on the board of directors of the food bank and has been able to use that to help establish a veterans’ food pantry at the Urbana VFW, and a small pantry for the residents at the UI’s Chez Center for Wounded Veterans, where she also works.

The pantries “also opened doors for veteran alumni and staff to volunteer in the community,” she said.

And it has taken her to even more interesting places.

“In 2015, the Oprah show found me through the food bank, and I was able to advocate for families in need on her show,” Daniels said.

Her Air Force experience has aided Daniels in the next step in her life.

“I just started graduate school here by utilizing the employee tuition assistance program to take evening and online classes,” she said.

She is studying in the College of Education with a concentration in Human Resource Development.

“I am hoping that the advanced degree will open more doors and platforms from which I can continue to advocate for veterans and families in need,” she said.

Daniels makes time for her family, too.

“I have two amazing kids and a horribly behaved dog that I just love more than anything,” she said. “They are the inspiration that keeps me pursuing education and advocating for a better world. I can’t wait for them to see me graduate in, hopefully, two-and-a-half years.”

Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at pwood@news-gazette.com.