As commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, Many-Bears Grinder oversaw the disbursement of 1.1 billion tax-free federal dollars to veterans last year.
“Not handouts, not welfare,” she emphasizes. “Disability compensation for their military service.”
You will be hard-pressed to find anyone more in tune with her job. “I told Gov. Haslam, ‘I can’t believe you’re paying me to do this,’ ” she recalls, beaming. “When I got that call and realized I could be serving half a million veterans and one-and-a-half million family members, I just jumped at the chance.”
The daughter of a soldier and wife of a Vietnam veteran, Grinder built an impressive 35-year military career. There weren’t many jobs for individual colonels when she volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan in 2007, but she ended up heading the secretariat of the International Police Coordination Board, working with the international community and Afghan security forces to standardize equipment and training.
Grinder was on track to become the first female general officer in the Tennessee Army National Guard when she took the job as the state’s first female commissioner of veterans affairs. En route to the Army’s Officer Candidate School, Grinder did her infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga., nicknamed “The Benning School for Boys” — that didn’t stop her from being inducted into its hall of fame in 2004. If she’s a trailblazer, she’s a humble one.
“If not for the women who served before me,” she says, before launching into a history lesson on women in the U.S. military that stretches back to the Revolutionary War, “I would not have the opportunities I did.” She says she fully supports Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s proposal to allow women to serve in combat roles — mostly because they already do, even if it has not been recognized officially.
“My daughter-in-law, Billie Jean — you can’t tell me she was not serving in combat,” Grinder says. “She was a combat pilot, and flew combat missions.”
Billie Jean Grinder, a Smyrna High School graduate, died in a helicopter crash in Iraq in February 2010, just weeks before she was to return home — the first female casualty of the Tennessee Army National Guard. She was 25.
“As I’m sitting in this chair, I actually have sat at many seats around the table,” Many-Bears Grinder says. “So as I talk to veterans and tell them that I’m going to do everything that I possibly can for them to ensure that they receive all the benefits and entitlements they deserve through service to our country, they believe me.”
Riding the elevator down from her office, Grinder runs into a veteran who recognizes her and chats her up. Within seconds, they’re talking like old friends. As they step out onto the ground floor, she interrupts their conversation and straightens up.
“I need to salute you,” she tells him.
The Model Citizen: Karen Elson
The Advocate: Paul Kuhn
The Cook: Tallu Schuyler Quinn
The Busker: Mike Slusser
The Cleaner: Sharon Reynolds
The Mobilizer: Remziya Suleyman
The Believer: Theron Denson
The Maker: Zoe Schlacter
The Animators: Magnetic Dreams
The Buyer: Kelly Anne Ross
The Arthouse Ambassador: Sarah Finklea
The Picker: Rory Hoffman
The Singer: Ruby Amanfu
The Educator: Ellen Gilbert
The Air Drummer: Steve Gorman
The Artist: Martin Cadieux
The Chef: Yayo Jiménez
The Futurist: Ken Gay
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