Many-Bears Grinder probably spends more time patiently, and graciously, explaining the origin of her name than the state commissioner’s busy Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs calendar actually allows.
If not “the” most asked question of Gov. Bill Haslam’s state cabinet appointee, it is certainly one of the most asked. But she’s OK with it, as long as part of each conversation is dedicated to her deepest passion — veterans.
Leading the state VA office since taking the oath in January 2011, one of Grinder’s principal roles — among many — is to oversee the needs of half-a-million veterans in Tennessee. A retired colonel who spent 35 years in the Tennessee Army National Guard, Grinder is the first woman to serve in the state post.
Her military career is filled with firsts. In her words during an interview with the Cleveland Daily Banner, “When I was in the military I broke many glass ceilings.”
One such ceiling that remained intact probably did so only because of her decision to accept Haslam’s offer to join his Cabinet. Accepting the VA post meant retiring after a long career with the state’s Army National Guard. Had Grinder stayed, she might have become the first female general officer in the state Guard.
But back to that name.
“It started a long time ago, many decades ago,” the commissioner said with a laugh. “It started as a joke, actually. I had a boss who was a practical joker. He was the one who came up with that, but it morphed into a nickname. And then, I changed it legally.”
Back in the 1970s, when she was a Finance NCO (noncommissioned officer) in the California Army National Guard, she was asked in front of others about the heritage of her maiden name — Benauro.
“Before I could answer ‘Filipino,’ my boss said ‘it’s Eskipino,’” she mused. “He said ‘Ben’ means ‘Bears’ and ‘Auro’ means ‘Many.’ He said, ‘Her tribal name is Many-Bears.’”
The explanation of her name also answers the next most asked question about the state commissioner. Though her physical appearance might suggest otherwise, Grinder is not Native American. She is Filipino-American although she has never lived in the Philippines. She was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. She has family in the Philippines and has visited the islands three times. But that’s the extent of her direct, and indirect, lineage.
Her tongue-in-cheek California naming came almost 40 years ago. But it stuck, and has remained.
Many-Bears is now a household term among Tennessee veterans organizations. And her passion for providing quality care for all veterans — men and women, active and retired, living and deceased — is unconditional; at least, to those who are familiar with her work.
Grinder, whose name is becoming more familiar to Bradley County residents because of the 10-year campaign to build a veterans home here, makes no secret of her personal mission to care for Tennessee veterans.
When asked by Haslam to serve as his VA commissioner, Grinder never flinched.
“Not in the least,” she confirmed. “One thing I always enjoyed during my military career, regardless of assignment, was taking care of soldiers ... always making sure they had enough to eat, had enough sleep, had enough clothing, understood their mission. Taking care of soldiers was what I loved.”
Grinder added, “So when I was asked if I wanted to become commissioner and take care of half-a-million veterans throughout the state, that was an easy decision. I haven’t looked back since.”
The reality that she is Tennessee’s first female VA commissioner doesn’t occupy much of her time.
“It doesn’t really make a difference to me,” Grinder said. “What it does make a difference to is a female veteran. In the past, they have not been heard. In the past, they have not been targeted for trying to provide information.”
That changed when Grinder took office. Although she focused on the needs of all veterans, she paid close attention to the needs of female veterans. She even launched the first Tennessee Women’s Veterans Summit two years ago, held the second one last year and is in the planning stages now for the third.
Such summits are invaluable networking tools for female veterans, she believes.
“What this has done ... is it has not only informed women veterans of benefits and entitlements they were not aware of, but it has also given some women a better perspective on identification and self-identifying as a veteran,” Grinder explained. “Attitudes were much different in earlier eras and the government did not even recognize women serving in the armed forces as veterans. They were not given veterans rights until the 1980s.”
In those early years, and to some degree even now, female veterans face unique challenges, she offered.
“So, what the summit has done is it has provided a great network for these women veterans,” Grinder stressed. “It has let them know that they are not alone in their circumstance. Some women have suffered from military sexual trauma, and they feel very alone ... like, ‘What was wrong with me? What did I do to bring this on?’ But as we talk, and are very frank in open discussions, it is a revelation for many and actually you can see the emotional experience as they realize, ‘I am not alone.’”
The summit has helped to open their eyes and give them a far greater sense of belonging, the commissioner added.
The status of women in the U.S. military today is growing, thanks to the experiences of those who served in the early years, Grinder pointed out. “They have gained credibility among veterans and their male counterparts now hold them in high esteem,” she said.
Grinder’s connection to female soldiers runs deep. Her own daughter-in-law, Billie Jean Grinder, who graduated from Smyrna High School, was a combat helicopter pilot. Billie Jean died in a helicopter crash in Iraq in February 2010, just weeks before she was to return home. She was 25, and the first female casualty of the Tennessee Army National Guard.
The state commissioner herself is the daughter of a soldier and the wife of a Vietnam veteran. In 2007, she volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom where she served as the Head of Secretariat for the International Police Coordinator Board. In this role, she traveled throughout Afghanistan, working with international diplomats and police, as well as the Afghan leaders and local police officers, to ensure standardized training and equipment for the Afghan police.
Since assuming her state commissioner role — which is a position she credits to Haslam’s sense of diversity — Grinder has built upon a personal list of priorities, all of which she says are aimed at serving veterans.
Because of the deep sacrifices made by veterans, “... many of them in conditions that were horrible, many in combat,” Grinder acknowledges it is difficult for America to appropriately thank them.
“Really, we can never truly pay our debt of gratitude [to veterans], but we all ... and when I say ‘all’ I mean state government, federal government, local government, citizens and organizations ... need to do everything we can for our veterans,” Grinder stressed. “[That’s because] they deserve it, not because they want a handout ... this is what they deserve.”
Grinder’s assessment explains her priorities in the state VA department.
One is claims assistance. In the last fiscal year, Tennessee Veterans Affairs and its working partners secured $1.6 billion in tax-free federal dollars for state veterans.
The state’s four veterans cemeteries also are on her radar, as well as the development of new cemeteries in West and East Tennessee. Her staff has worked to develop new online registration for veterans in which families can register their loved ones for burial without having to wait until they pass away, when such emotional decisions are more stressful.
Among two of Grinder’s top priorities are higher education and employment for returning veterans.
“I see our department being everything veteran,” Grinder said. “When you look at some of the things our veterans are facing when they come back ... unemployment, some are facing struggles with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), some find themselves homeless ... these are things that our brave men and women should never have to face.”
Currently, veterans face a 7.3 percent unemployment rate, a figure that deeply disturbs the commissioner.
“We want to make sure that the words ‘unemployed’ and ‘veterans’ don’t go together, and that they have more than ‘a job,’ but a ‘great career,’” Grinder stressed. “They have an awful lot they can contribute to an employer. The skills they bring back, not only the technical skills but leadership ... they have learned from the military.”
Veterans also bring “reliability and self-discipline” to any work environment, Grinder noted.
To secure best possible employment means helping veterans with higher education, she said, and that’s another priority of her administration.
Grinder is also focused on Veterans Court. Partnerships are already operating in Shelby, Davidson and Montgomery counties. These are courts that are exclusive to veterans who have run afoul of the law.
“The reason this is important is that when our veterans come back ... some of the problems they encounter with the law can be attributed to their military service,” she said. “Maybe they have come back, and because of PTSD, they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. And, they have gotten themselves into trouble.”
Often, it’s not their fault.
“Since some of these things may never have happened had they not served, we owe them this second chance,” the commissioner explained. “Now, they don’t get a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. They have to earn it. They have to earn it by attending all the requirements of rehab.”
By working with partners, such as other government agencies, the Department of Veterans Affairs develops accountability plans for veterans that include the use of mentors.
These mentors are instrumental in turning veterans around because they are in constant contact, she said, and they ask plenty of questions.
“Have you signed up for school yet? Have you shown up for your job interview? What have you done in your rehab? Where are you at with this? What are you doing with that? Don’t forget, you have a court date. We have got to go.”
Strategies like Veterans Court “... are helping to turn lives around,” Grinder stressed. “So, another goal of ours is to start Veterans Court in areas where we have populations of at least 50,000 in the county.”
Grinder also is working closely with veterans’ families, as well as partnering with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health to develop awareness strategies to reduce the number of veteran suicides.
“... There are 22 [veterans] nationwide that commit suicide every day,” she said. Grinder called the number “unspeakable.”
America owes her veterans, Grinder stressed. And that includes Tennessee.
“We owe them,” she said. “We all owe them. Even though not everyone served, everyone can support our veterans. Saying ‘thank you for your service,’ yes, that’s nice. But it’s nowhere near enough. Everyone can support our veterans in some way every day.”
a staunch believer
in local vets home
Her priorities, and her personal mission while in office in Nashville, are why Grinder is adamant that Bradley County’s new veterans home must be of the highest quality.
Although the 10-year campaign for a new veterans home here recently encountered what Grinder called a “speed bump” due to a pre-Veterans Day rejection of the 28-acre site due to land dimensions, soil, terrain, roadway visibility and land prep cost, she stressed her commitment to local veterans has not wavered.
“What I want [Bradley County veterans] to know is I have always been 100 percent committed to making sure that project comes to fruition,” Grinder stated. “That commitment has not wavered one little bit.”
The commissioner even referenced a headline that appeared in the Nov. 13, 2013, edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner reporting the veterans home progress was temporarily halted following the property’s rejection by the State of Tennessee Real Estate Asset Management, a division of the Tennessee Department of General Services.
“... I didn’t like the word ‘halt’ because that was never in my vocabulary as far as this is concerned,” Grinder stressed.
Once she received the STREAM update, Grinder promptly contacted local government and veterans leaders in Bradley County to report the latest obstacle. This led to a meeting in Cleveland at the Chamber of Commerce with local government leaders and the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council. Grinder attended the session in hopes of reassuring Council members and of expediting a solution to the site dilemma. Above all else, the commissioner appeared in order to confirm she remains committed to the local facility.
“One thing I want to make sure that all the veterans in the Southeast region know is that our 100 percent commitment has not faltered,” Grinder stressed.
And her commitment includes facility quality, whether the veterans home is eventually built on the existing property or a new site.
“I also want [Bradley County veterans] to know that you can compromise on a lot of things, but quality is not one of them,” she stressed. “As I stated before, our veterans deserve nothing but the best. We need to make sure we deliver on that.”
She added, “One of the gentlemen at the meeting said ‘... we don’t need a Taj Mahal; all we want is a Howard Johnson’s.’ I’m sorry, [but] Howard Johnson’s is not what our veterans deserve. They do deserve the best. They deserve a home that is worthy of their presence ... one that is going to be safe and secure and that will give them that home environment that we would all want our beloved veterans to have.”
Although the Bradley County Veterans Office and local government leaders had hoped the start of construction was no more than 12 to 18 months away, Grinder said any timeline is fluid, especially with building projects where so many requirements — U.S., state and local — are at play. A timetable could depend on multiple factors.
“... Making this property work or looking at other property, that’s going to be the depending factor,” she offered. If local leaders want to work to try to mitigate site issues identified by STREAM, then the question will be the length of time required, Grinder added.
In the hearts and minds of local government and veterans leaders is one question: Can the existing site be made usable by adding property or correcting other apparent shortfalls identified by STREAM?
“... Everyone is looking to see exactly what it would take,” Grinder said. “If this site satisfies all requirements, then it will be a great thing for everybody.”
If it can be made to work without compromising the facility’s quality, then the commissioner said she is good with it.
“... The main thing in my book is the quality for veterans and making sure this is going to be a great home for them, not just in the near future but in years to come,” Grinder stressed.
Of her decision to notify local government and veterans leaders of STREAM’s rejection just prior to Veterans Day Weekend — an annual tribute that Bradley Countians take seriously — Grinder understands the sentiments of those who felt the timing was awkward. But, she felt it was necessary.
“What was going through my mind was the Golden Rule,” she offered. “Would I want someone else to withhold information from me until a later date when there was really no reason? I would want to know as soon as possible.”
She added, “If you look at it the other way, let’s say I withheld that until the Tuesday after Veterans Day ... after they’ve had this great celebration and great honoring of veterans, and then I tell you the day after, ‘I hate to break this to you.’ Would that really make it any better? Bad news doesn’t get better over time.”
Grinder offered another perspective, this one more personal.
“For me, every day is Veterans Day,” she stated.
In her job, every day — Monday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday — is dedicated to veterans.
“... Out of respect for our veterans, I just want to make sure that every single day I’m looking out for them, that I’m caring for them and looking out for their priorities,” Grinder stressed.
The commissioner said she has no doubt — not in the least — that Cleveland and Bradley County residents support providing for the needs of their veterans. It is obvious from community observations held locally on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and other patriotic holidays, she pointed out.
“I just want to say how honored I am to be affiliated with a community that is so veterans-friendly,” Grinder stated.
As with her name and heritage, Grinder said she’ll answer questions about the Bradley County veterans home as long, and as often, as it takes. Her patience defines her conviction.
Asked by the Banner “how many hundreds and thousands” of times she has been asked if she is Native American, the likable commissioner answered with a laugh, “I think we’re past hundreds and thousands ... even to the point that people don’t have to ask the question. They’ll say, ‘Can I ask you something?’ and I’ll just go ahead and give them the answer.”
The same principle holds true for a veterans home in Bradley County.
Many-Bears Grinder doesn’t know the date. But she does bear the commitment.