With Honor and Respect
I was fortunate enough to catch Tennessee Commissioner of Veterans Services Many-Bears Grinder for a short phone interview the morning after our job fair. After we talked, she departed for Smyrna, a few miles southeast of Nashville, to speak at the POW/MIA Recognition Day Luncheon hosted by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Tennessee Valley Healthcare System. Grinder is a very busy woman, as you will note, and I am grateful that she could work me in.
I asked her about her military experience, her duties in her current position, and what she has seen by way of challenges faced by veterans – especially women veterans. Our conversation and a little subsequent research showed me that Tennessee veterans have an incredibly caring, passionate, and humble servant in Commissioner Grinder. She is the kind of leader who betters herself to best serve others. She is the kind of person who gives back in any way she can, and loves doing it. And she is the kind of woman who inspires others, through her own example, to push themselves and never stop growing.
A MILITARY FAMILY
Many-Bears Grinder owes a great deal to the United States military. Her father was Filipino and earned his U.S. citizenship through his service in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. Her mother was an American living in the Philippines. When the Japanese occupied the islands in 1942, Grinder’s mother was put into the Manila internment camp. There she remained until American troops liberated the city in 1944. In 1950, her parents met in Salt Lake City, where they wed and raised a family. “Quite literally,” she told me, “without the United States military, I would not be here today.”
Military service is something of a tradition in her family. Her husband, Ernie Grinder, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Two of her brothers served – one in the Navy and the other in the Army.
The desire to serve has been passed to the next generation as well, and that generation has sustained a loss. “Our son, Sam, and his wife, Billie Jean, were both aviators in the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2009, shortly after I got back from Afghanistan,” she said. “There, in 2010, she gave her life in service to our country.” CW2 Billie Jean Grinder was 25 years old when she died in a helicopter crash.
STATESIDE AND DEPLOYED
Commissioner Grinder herself served in both the California National Guard and the Tennessee National Guard, retiring after 35 years of service, and decorated with prestigious awards such as the Legion of Merit and a Bronze Star Medal. “I just wanted to do my part,” she said. “I feel honored to have served.”
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Grinder worked for the Utah National Guard as a civilian after high school. She later moved to California, where, on Christmas Eve in 1975, she enlisted in the California Army National Guard. She became a commissioned officer in 1982, while stationed at Camp San Luis Obispo, by attending Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. “There was a state OCS program that I could have joined, but I like a challenge,” Grinder told me. “I always heard that federal OCS was much more challenging than the state-run courses. So I went that route.”
During her military career, she was a clerk typist, a field baker, a transportation officer, a quartermaster officer, and a military police officer. Perhaps due to her innate nature to push herself, she chose roles that were not typically given to women. “I actively pursued positions in transportation and military police. Part of this is because I felt like I would be limited in how far I could progress in my military career if I stayed in finance or personnel roles; I wanted to go as far as I could. I felt that the best way to do that would be to go combat support or combat-service support, since combat roles were closed to women at that time.”
Her first job as an officer was commander of a supply and service company in California, where her unit supported various natural disasters. “As most people know, California experiences more than their fair share of wildfires,” she said. “The supply and service company supported the firefighters by providing truck drivers who delivered supplies. We also set up field showers and field laundry, and I can tell you those firefighters were extremely grateful to get a shower and clean clothing after fighting those fires all day. That was an amazing mission.”
Another mission in California was to recover remains from an airplane crash. “We were able to help gather remains for the identification of those who were killed in the crash so that they could have a proper burial,” she said. The ability to give the families closure and to honor their loved ones was an experience that she will never forget.
After moving to Tennessee, Grinder deployed with the Guard to Panama, Bulgaria, and Afghanistan. “In Afghanistan, I had to go outside the green zone by myself every day to join my colleagues,” she said. “We would travel around the country to observe the various types of Afghan police in training. Multiple times, I was the only female, the only military member, and the only American in the group. I was told on multiple occasions that I was a
‘triple target’ because of being American, a female, and a full colonel. So if I were to be kidnapped, or worse, it would be a rather sensational media story.”
Fortunately, she did not have any issues on that front. “I was considered an ‘honorary male’ by my colleagues,” she told me, “and they treated me rather well.”
Back home in Tennessee, her duties included supporting areas that were hit with natural disasters. “In that capacity, my team provided logistical support for relief teams dealing with ice storms, tornadoes, and the flood of 2010 – which drenched West and Middle Tennessee, including the Nashville metropolitan area.”
CHALLENGE AND PERSPECTIVE
Reflecting on her military career, Grinder said that some of the most challenging experiences were those that also made her most proud. “I discovered I was a lot tougher than I imagined,” she told me, “both in training situations and in Afghanistan, where I had to wear over forty pounds of gear. A lot of obstacles came up, sometimes because of my gender, sometimes because of resources, but I always figured out a way to work around them – or through them, or over them. The mission doesn’t allow you to quit. You have to find a way to get the job done.”
Grinder’s never-quit mentality showed up elsewhere; she found ways to push herself continually toward personal goals. “It was important to me, with every promotion, to immediately begin getting myself qualified for the next rank. I wanted to make sure that, if I was not selected, it would be because the board made a terrible decision,” she said, laughing, “and not because I failed to get myself qualified.”
Through all of the excitement and danger, Grinder realized that what she loved most was taking care of her troops. “Because I had been enlisted previously, all the way up to staff sergeant, I think I had a much different perspective of taking care of soldiers than, perhaps, some of my counterparts. To me, it was very important to treat my troops with honor and respect, and to never ask them to do anything I would not do myself. That’s why I love my current job. I loved taking care of my soldiers, and now I take care of half a million veterans.” The transition, it would seem, has been from one positon she loved into another.
Grinder retired as a colonel in 2011. “I was on the path to become the first female general in the Tennessee National Guard,” she said. But when given the chance to serve the veterans of Tennessee, she did not hesitate. After Bill Halsam was elected governor in 2010, his transition team asked her whether she would like to be considered for the position of commissioner of veterans services. “About three days after I interviewed with Governor Halsam, he was sworn into his position and I was sworn into mine as the commissioner of veterans services,” she said.
When Grinder started as commissioner, the department’s tasks consisted mostly of helping veterans file for benefits and disability claims as well as operating state veteran cemeteries. “While what we were doing was very important, our services mostly seemed to be helping veterans from the Vietnam era or earlier,” she told me. “Meanwhile, we had seen a huge influx of new veterans. In one year alone, we saw our population of post-9/11 veterans grow by 25,000. We knew that we needed to address all needs of all veterans, as best as we could. So one of my first initiatives was to start focusing on all of our veterans’ needs.”
She expanded services to include what they call the ‘next chapter’ for transitioning veterans. “The next chapter might look like higher education for some, it might look like immediate employment for others, and for some it might be starting their own business.”
The department makes sure Tennessee veterans have all of the tools they need to accomplish their goals. “We want to make sure that our veterans feel the same self-confidence, pride, honor, and respect that they felt when they were wearing the uniform. It is our job to make sure they feel supported. We want to make sure that next chapter is guided and is fully understood, so we have become that connective tissue for our veterans. We’ve been working very hard toward this goal. Last year, along with our county partners, we were able to secure over two billion dollars of tax-free federal income for veterans and their families.”
Sometimes, supporting veterans means helping them in times of trouble. “In addition to the ‘next chapter’ initiative, we are also involved with veteran treatment courts, which help veterans who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law,” Grinder explained. “In some of those cases, their military service may have contributed to them self-medicating through drugs or alcohol. Some of them just have a hard time adjusting.”
Through veteran treatment court, the convicted are not given a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but they are given a second chance. “They have to successfully complete any rehab or counselling or community service that the judge orders. We are there to ensure that the veteran is aware of any benefits for which they’re qualified and to support them through the process.”
Another way the department looks after Tennessee veterans is through veterans’ housing programs. “We are there to not just help the homeless veteran population; we also help those who are at risk of becoming homeless,” said Grinder. Her department works with foundations such as Operation Stand Down, a national non-profit organization that provides temporary transitional housing and other free transitional services; and Buffalo Valley, a local organization that offers housing to veterans at risk because of homelessness or substance abuse.
“We also work with the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which offers veterans special loans. And of course, we work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which offers the VA loan that does not require a down payment.”
SERVING WOMEN VETERANS
Grinder keeps women veterans’ issues on her radar. In 2012, her department initiated the Women’s Veteran Summit, a now annual event to support and connect women veterans in Tennessee. “We have had women serving in the military since our country was born,” she said, “yet many of their gender-specific issues were not addressed by the government. For example, some of them were sent to work in field environments without proper hygiene provisions, which caused health problems. Some women veterans were victims of military sexual trauma. Some were being treated in a VA hospital and set in a gurney out in a hallway with just a sheet covering, and there are men everywhere. That isn’t going to make anyone feel at ease.”
Women veterans have also had to deal with a lack of recognition as veterans. “The women that flew aircraft during World War II are only now allowed to be buried at Arlington,” said Grinder. She was referencing a law recently passed by Congress to make Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) eligible for burial in Arlington National Cemetery – a privilege previously withheld.
“But it isn’t just that women veterans have historically faced a lack of recognition from the government,” she said. “They face it from the public as well. Many times, our veteran status, as women, is invisible. You see a lot of men wearing hats or vests with badges that display their military background. But that isn’t always the case with women. And while certainly no veteran expects that recognition, it does have an effect when men are thanked for their service but women are often not.”
To Grinder, recognition and attention to specific women veterans’ issues is just common sense. “It is 2016, and more and more women are serving in more and more roles in the military. And after they’ve served, we have a responsibility to take care of our veterans – all of them, men and women.”
And when it comes to women being allowed to serve in combat positions, Grinder feels that the decision is long overdue. “I think that for any position, the best-qualified person should be selected. To completely eliminate women as candidates for certain roles is not only damaging to the women who serve, it’s damaging to the service itself,” she said.
ALWAYS LOOKING FORWARD
Though her job can be demanding, Commissioner Grinder feels that there is nothing more rewarding than being able to improve the lives of veterans and to honor them for their service. “It truly does not feel like work,” she told me. “When I get up in the morning and come in here, I never feel like I am dragging my feet. Every day, I look forward to finding ways that we can better serve our veteran population.”
One of the favorite aspects of her job? Meeting the amazing people she gets to serve. “I love meeting the people who have sacrificed for our country. They’ve done so much, but they’re so incredibly humble. If you thank a former POW for their sacrifice, they always turn around and talk about their battle buddy that sacrificed even more.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. I’ve been able to meet with people who, after decades, are finally able to bring home their loved ones who were missing or killed in action overseas. I’ve met veterans who were told they would never walk again but kept working at it and now they are walking. I’ve met many veterans who have served and sacrificed so much and then they pass that desire to serve onto their own children. I am privileged and honored to be amongst such great Americans every day.”
ADVICE FOR JOB SEEKERS
Though her own transition was unusually smooth, Grinder knows that it is an incredibly tough journey for many. Her message to transitioning servicemembers: “Listen to every briefing closely. Ask questions. Take the handouts. Sign up for newsletters and emails.”
To Grinder, preparation is also critical. “If you start early and take the time to find out what all of the opportunities are, you will not be limited to only one path. You don’t know what is available unless you stay open-minded to every opportunity.”
Another key: networking. “I cannot overemphasize the importance of networking,” she said. “When you meet someone, they might not be working in a field that has anything to do with your interests, but you never know where that person may end up or where you may end up. Networking is not just for helping you now, it is extremely important for your future situation as well.”
Elizabeth Stetler is the editor of Search & Employ® and a veteran of the United States Army. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Elizabeth Stetler