Class IV
Graduation Address

TEnnessee Department of Veteran Services
Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder

Montgomery bell State Park
june 12, 2017


During my 35 years in the military, I attended numerous leadership courses, from Basic Leadership as a Non-commissioned Officer, to include Army War College for senior officers in Carlisle PA.  During various assignments, conferences, and training opportunities, I was able to network with current and emerging leaders.  But – they too were all members of the armed forces!  When I retired In 2011 to accept the position on the Governor’s cabinet, I was well on my way to become the first female General Officer in the TN Army National Guard – a glass ceiling that has yet to be broken.  So, I turned in my combat boots for uncomfortable shoes, tried to quit using military jargon and acronyms, and started to meet people from a wide spectrum of society.  I was making new connections, but they were mostly veterans, state lawmakers, and county officials.  

My department’s responsibilities centered mostly around operation of the State Veterans Cemeteries, and assisting Veterans in filing disability claims with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.  In 2013, I had just expanded our focus to “Everything Veteran” – being the connective tissue for Veterans to Higher Education, Career Opportunities, Business Resources, and second chances through Veteran Treatment Courts.   

About that same time, I had the distinct honor of becoming a member of Leadership Tennessee’s inaugural class.   As introductions were being made, I felt humbled to be among a group of leaders from all levels of Government, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, entrepreneurs, and business executives.   I recall on the night of our orientation in Townsend, Randy Boyd, who at the time was Special Advisor on Higher Education to the Governor, asked to meet regarding Higher Education opportunities for Veterans.  That same evening, Michael Burcham, Army Veteran and CEO of Nashville Entrepreneur Center wanted to discuss helping Veterans starting a business.  With our new expanded focus on “Everything Veteran”, I was so excited, I could hardly sleep that night.

Before even starting the first session, I quickly realized that the expansion of my network with people who could help make a difference for our deserving Veterans was going to be a huge benefit in my participation in this amazing opportunity.  

More of my classmates directly or indirectly helped in my mission.  Mary Lou Apple, Veteran and president of Motlow State College served on the Governor’s Veteran Education Task Force.  I collaborated with Claude Presnell, President of TN Independent Colleges and Universities Association to collect data on Student Veterans and track their progress.  As I prepared to launch the first Women Veterans Summit in TN, I gained some information and resources from other classmates that I could share with our participants.  When we started raising funds for the TN State Veterans Home in Shelby County, Mike Carpenter Executive Director of the Plough Foundation became paramount in the collection and securing of donated funds until such time they are transferred to the State.  When the Congressional Medal of Honor Society met in Knoxville, Michael Strickland and Bandid Lights provided the support for the prestigious leadership luncheon.  Jamie Woodson, President and CEO of SCORE, included me on a panel to discuss the alarming high percentage of high school graduates that do not meet criteria to enlist in the military.  Laurens Tullock, President of Centerstone Foundation in Knoxville and I have collaborated on support of Veterans in East TN.  Clarksville Mayor McMillan and I teamed up to conduct research with Veterans and Employers’ focus groups to determine how we can improve the recruiting, onboarding and retaining of Veterans in the workforce.   

Since 2011, I had been working with county leadership to increase the number of counties with a County Service Officer to support Veterans throughout the state.  TN had 81 at the time, and due to our efforts, there are 94.  I can attribute the addition of Davidson and Hamilton Counties directly to Leadership TN!  Metro-Nashville Mayor Dean was one of my classmates, and I took the opportunity to educate him on the benefits of hiring a County Service Officer.  

That’s only the networking among my classmates!  I have made it a point to attend orientation and regional sessions to meet subsequent classes of Leadership TN, because with each iteration comes more contacts, more experiences, and more insights. Attending Class 2’s session at the Chattanooga Aquarium, I arrived early, as did County Mayor Coppinger, who was there to welcome the class.   I told him how his local Veterans could be better served with a County Service Office, and that the benefits to the City and County with increased income to the area could pay for itself.   We scheduled a meeting, and the rest is history.  He now has a County Service Officer on staff, and every time I have seen him since, he expresses his appreciation for the gentle nudging beginning at the Aquarium.   Chattanooga recently made the news by proclaim the end of Veteran Homelessness there, with a combined effort of City, County, corporate, and non-profit support.

I first met then State Senator Diane Black after my daughter-in-law, 25 year old CW2 Billie ‘Jean Grinder was killed in Iraq, shortly after I returned from Afghanistan.  Senator Black attended the funeral, and wrote a resolution to recognize Billie ‘Jean’s service and sacrifice.  I recently met with US Congressman Black in her DC office about funding for State Veterans Homes.  As the wife of a Vietnam Veteran, and Chair of the House Budget Committee, your classmate has a heart for our Veterans.  

The insights gained as we received tours and briefings across the state, have been helpful for me to understand some of the barriers and more importantly, some of the innovations being initiated in all aspects of State growth.  I also learned of the challenges and opportunities in rural areas, of community dynamics, and apply that knowledge in working with County Mayors, Veterans, as well as judges as we helped stand up more and more Veteran Treatment Courts. Our class toured the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.  I returned there a couple of times, and later met a new addition there:  Blake Logan of Bunker Labs – where they work exclusively with Veterans starting their own businesses.  We are now strong partners in several initiatives to provide business resources to our customers.  

Just know, the benefits and growth don’t stop with your graduation, unless you chose to stagnate.  As you graduate from Leadership Tennessee, I encourage you to reach out to your classmates for ideas and connections.  Attend functions with future classes to further expand your network.  Continue to support LT as a volunteer or donor.  All of the collective efforts here are helping to grow a better TN—one session at a time!

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