Orange detective reached top of Air Force’s enlisted ranks by heeding her mom's advice

By Greg Hardesty

Her mother used to tell her all the time:

It’s not where you start. It’s where you end up.

Where Tina Dunneback started wasn’t the best.

Her mother and father divorced when she was 1. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she saw him again — just once, until years later when he re-entered her life two years before he died.

Dunneback grew up a typical latchkey kid, returning from school to an empty home as her mother toiled to pay bills.

For years while growing up, a stepfather was in and out of the picture, but he and her mother often fought.

Dunneback vividly recalls one domestic-violence call to her house in Orange.

Around 12 at the time, she was hiding in a closet while her mother and father loudly fought.

Suddenly, a uniformed armed reached inside.

“It’s OK,” the Orange PD officer told Tina. “It’s going to be OK.”

The words of her mother, and the kindness of that officer, have a lot to do with where Dunneback ended up.

Tina Dunneback at her retirement from the Air Force in June 2015. She served 33 years with the Air Force, the last 20 as a reserve. Photo courtesy of Tina Dunneback

Now 54, she’s a 22-year veteran of the Orange PD currently working economic crimes in the Detective Bureau.

During a 33-year career in the Air Force — the last 20 as a reserve — Dunneback worked her way up to the rank of Chief Master Sergeant (E9), the highest enlisted rank. Only 1 percent of the Air Force’s enlisted members serve as E9s.

“It’s all about making the right choices,” Dunneback said of her achievements. “I had every opportunity to be bad, but my mother instilled just enough wisdom and common sense in me to find my way.”

***

Dunneback didn’t get into trouble growing up.

But academics weren’t her thing. And for several years, direction eluded her.

An older cousin living in Hawaiian Gardens ended up being a key inspiration.

Around the time when the OPD officer plucked a frightened Tina out of that closet, she visited her cousin, who pretty much spent most of his time in his room vegetating.

“One day my aunt told him to do something with his life,” Dunneback said. “So he joined the Air Force. I remember him coming back on leave in amazing shape. And he was working on his college education. And I thought, ‘If he went into the Air Force not caring, what could I achieve if I cared?”

Dunneback mentioned the idea of one day joining the Air Force to her mother, Betty, whom everyone called “Granny.” Dunneback’s mother’s childhood also wasn’t easy. “Granny” grew up dirt poor in Tennessee and lost her mother when she was 13. Her father was nowhere around.

After taking summer school classes so she could graduate from Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills, Dunneback still lacked direction. She was trying to work full time and put herself through junior college, but things weren’t working.

Then her mother told her, “Remember the Air Force.”

Dunneback, then 19, replied: “You’re right.”

She went straight to a recruiter and 10 days later, Dunneback was in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Bexar County, Texas.

It was June 1982.

Officer Tina Dunneback and one of her closest friends at the Orange PD, the late Officer Stanley Taylor, stand in front of a Black Hawk helicopter that made an emergency landing in a business parking lot in Orange about 10 years ago. Photo courtesy of Tina Dunneback

***

The military exactly was what Dunneback needed.

“Once I got in, I realized this was good and I could adapt to it,” Dunneback said. “I needed structure — what to do, when to do it and how to do it. I was really good at following instructions.”

Dunneback previously had shown a flair for thriving in a structured setting. She started playing the clarinet in fourth grade, and she became the first female drum major at her junior high and high schools.

In the Air Force, where she started out working as a supply troop, Dunneback found herself driven to do her best. She was planning on becoming an officer but she met an Air Force officer and married him, and her goals shifted.

While stationed in Germany in the beautiful countryside outside Frankfurt, she and her husband had a son, Joshua.

But things have a way of repeating themselves.

Dunneback’s marriage slowly fell apart while she was on active duty.

After Germany, Dunneback was stationed in Austin, Texas, and then, in the early 1990s, was sent to Saudi Arabia for 179 days during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. During that time, her husband was stationed in Korea.

“It was very humbling in some ways,” she said of her assignment in Saudi Arabia. “It really makes you appreciate what we have here.”

Dunneback then was stationed in Texas again for a while before she ended up at March Force Air Base in California.

Like the marriage of her mother and stepfather, Dunneback’s union became shattered by domestic violence. When Joshua was 8, Dunneback and her former husband began divorce proceedings.

In 1995, when Dunneback was 32, she decided to become a reserve in the Air Force and pursue a full-time career in law enforcement.

“Failure wasn’t an option,” she said of becoming a cop.

Dunneback applied to several agencies and recalls walking into the OPD in her Air Force uniform.

“Hi, I want to be a police officer,” she told the person behind the glass at the lobby counter. “I don’t know where to go or what to do. Can you help me?”

A lieutenant did just that, and Dunneback was on her way. She graduated from the Golden West Police Academy in December 1995 and that month was sworn in as an OPD officer.

Dunneback loved patrol, which she was assigned to for 13 years.

“I liked being out in the public working with people,” she said. “I have a saying I lived by: ‘If I can make a positive difference in one’s person life every day, I’ve done my job.’”

While a patrol officer, Dunneback worked in the field for several years as a crime scene investigator.

“I like numbers and puzzles, and putting the pieces together,” she said.

This file photo shows members of the Orange PD’s new Mounted Unit, (from left) Officer Dan Yakel and his horse Beau, Officer Sarah Costa and her horse Danny Boy, Det. Tina Dunneback and her horse Dudley, and Sgt. David Natividad with his horse Maximus.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Dunneback served as a school resources officer from 2008 to 2015, when she was promoted to detective. In 2012, she was promoted to E-9 and was assigned to Logistics Readiness Squadron. She retired from the Air Force in June 2015.

“It was bittersweet, but I had to retire because I had hit the high year of tenure, 33 years,” Dunneback said. “I still miss it every day — the mission, but mostly the people. I’m very thankful for the Orange PD. They were great in supporting my military work.”

***

An animal lover all her life — she and her mother had pets of all kinds, including a horse when she was a teenage — Dunneback, in September, will resume her duties as one of four officers on the OPD’s newly formed Mounted Unit.

That cherished assignment couldn’t have come at a better time.

Dunneback’s mother died in December 2015. For several years, Dunneback was her caretaker (she also was a caretaker of her father, Charles, for two years until his death in 1998).

Without her mother and her Air Force duties, Dunneback suddenly found herself with free time outside of police work. A lot of that time now is spent training with her horse, Dudley, a Morgan.

In addition to that ancillary OPD duty, Dunneback is a crisis hostage negotiator.

She is one of the OPD’s two economic crimes detectives. The other is Det. Kirk Salmon. Between them, they work a few dozen cases at any time.

Dunneback recently solved a case involving an office manager who bilked her employer, a local construction company, out of nearly $200,000. That embezzlement nearly put the company out of business.

In this file photo, Orange PD Det. Tina Dunneback gets her horse, Dudley, to walk backwards through cones during training.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Dunneback has worked sex crimes, and in her workstation hang two mugshots of child molesters she helped put behind bars. One of them, Fidelia Montero, sexually abused her child. Another, Felipe Hernandez, molested two young sisters.

“It just reminds me why we’re here,” Dunneback said of the booking photos.

There also are photos of her close friend, the late OPD Officer Stan Taylor. “Big Stan” died in 2008 of cancer.

Eventually, when she retires from the OPD, Dunneback would like to work with veterans in a teaching capacity.

“The Air Force gave me the foundation for who I am,” Dunneback said.

And what are some of those qualities?

“I’m disciplined, I have integrity and I’m dependable.”

Dunneback also has a late mother who wasn’t perfect, but who helped mold her into the person she is today.

Dunneback earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal and social justice and a master’s degree in human services with a concentration in executive leadership

It’s a good thing she didn’t listen to a counselor in high school, who once told her: “Once a C student, always a C student.”

Dunneback has the words of her late mother to thank for that — the words of Granny, who always did the best she could and who was Dunneback’s best friend:

It’s not where you start. It’s where you end up.

Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC