Text: Many-Bears Grinder’s commencement address to the MC Class of 2016

Text: Many-Bears Grinder’s commencement address to the MC Class of 2016

Many-Bears Grinder, Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services, delivered the commencement address to the Maryville College Class of 2016 on May 15, 2016. Here is the full text of her address, titled “Call to Serve.”

Graduating students: It is truly an honor to be with all of you today, especially on such an incredible milestone moment in your lives.

I was humbled, anxious and excited when I received the invitation to offer your commencement address.

The anxiety of this awesome opportunity faded, when organizers asked for my life scripture, which serves as a capstone for my daily walk.

Matthew 25:35-40 reads “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. 

My parents and upbringing were truly humble. 

My mother was Filipino-American and my father was Filipino.

When the Japanese occupied the Philippines during World War II, because my mother was born in America, but was living in the Philippines at the time, she was confined to an internment camp.

My father enlisted in the United States Navy to fight in World War II, which later enabled him to become an American citizen.

I was the youngest of 5 children.

We were taught to work hard and to be truly grateful for everything we had as we modestly made our home in Utah. I was hired for my first job at age 14.

In the 1970’s, I was fortunate to find a job as a civilian working for the National Guard in Utah then California.

After several years of being recruited to put on a uniform, I finally jumped into the adventure that would allow me to serve my state, country and fellow Soldiers. 

My 35-year career allowed me to learn just about every detail of personnel, become part of the military police tight knit community, and to serve in Afghanistan for a year.

The journey allowed me to seize incredible opportunities to develop leadership by growing my heart to serve.

In 1989 I transferred to the Tennessee National Guard, where I met my husband… a Vietnam Veteran with a heart that matches his large 6 foot 4 stature.

Ernie… and my brother who also served in Vietnam… have given me a painful glimpse into the horrors they faced decades ago… but still haunt them today. Their experiences were exasperated when they returned to the United States, by the disrespect they received, instead of the Welcome Home they deserved.

Both of these precious men find comfort in the gratitude of today’s Americans who are finally willing to thank them for their service and help them to find healing to overcome the wounds of war.

My husband and I both retired from the Tennessee National Guard, and we found that troops, as well as citizens we serve…are much more open to partnerships when they can hear, see and feel your compassion.

People are not looking for sympathy that actually makes them feel weak and their circumstances hopeless.

They are looking for empathy from those who have either walked in their shoes or who are willing to put those shoes on… to find out how to be of service in a way that can change lives.

As a woman, it was difficult to get a seat on a deployment to Afghanistan… but when asked why I so desperately wanted to volunteer to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom… my response was… if I am going to be part of sending our troops to serve in this mission, I need to walk in their boots to find out what they and their families are facing.

It was a valuable opportunity to learn about the Afghanistan citizens, police officers from around the world, as well as the mission for our troops overseas.

You may already know that those without postsecondary education have an 84% chance of earning only minimum wage. Thankfully none of you have to worry about that! But truly, without education, futures are dim.

I served in Afghanistan from 2007 – 2008. During Taliban rule, there was a complete ban on women working outside the home. Most of the teachers were female. Furthermore, boys were certainly not encouraged to attend school, and girls were not allowed. Movies and videos were prohibited in the country, so even learning by that media was not possible. As a result, the country was at a stalemate with a 31% literacy rate.

We faced extreme difficulty in training Afghan police. Those attending the police academy, and even their leaders, had to commit everything to memory, because they couldn’t read the training manuals. Can you imagine trying to memorize law, policy and procedure without the ability to read? Conducting meetings with those at the Ministry level was a challenge, because anything we communicated could not be supplemented with handouts which would be meaningless without knowing how to read them. As all of you know, if you can read, you can learn anything you desire.

I also learned about the mistreatment of Afghan women there. Many were beaten severely for showing their face in public, some even stoned to death. I saw a man driving a Toyota Corolla with 5 children and a goat in the car – and a woman in the trunk. Yes, even the goat was regarded a higher status than the female.

Just months after I returned from my redeployment, our son Sam and his wife Billie Jean served in Iraq, both helicopter pilots … Sam arrived home early and anxiously waited for his beloved wife who was just days away from that trip back to the states… when her helicopter went down on February 21, 2010.

CW2 Billie Jean Grinder and CPT Marcus Alford gave their lives in service to our country that day. She was only 25 years old.

The pain of losing Billie Jean remains fresh in our hearts, minds and spirits… however… her passion to serve lives on in our lives, and in the lives of friends and strangers. 

Last month… a group of female ROTC cadets from Buffalo, New York did a 26.2 mile run in the steep Smoky Mountains for the 9th Annual Mountain Man Memorial March in honor of Billie Jean. Her story has inspired so many… and continues to fuel me to serve Veterans, dependents and surviving family members with every ounce of energy I have.

In an audience this size, the backgrounds… struggles and opportunities will vary.

However, I want to offer encouragement… you are not your childhood… but you can build on those lessons and experiences.

You are not the battles you fight… but you can build on those courageous moments and the bonds of brotherhoods.

You are not the sum of the set-backs you suffer… but instead I would encourage you to learn from failure… cultivate a heart of humility and build a legacy of service.

Not everyone can serve in the military, and not everyone should. Only 1% of US citizens wear the uniform today. However, all of us can serve in our communities. While doing so, real-life education is gained and can be life-changing. 

My mother tutored youth who spoke English as a Second Language in San Diego. She gave piano lessons to neighborhood latch key children who would otherwise be running in the streets.

As a teenager, I volunteered at a nursing home because I adore the elderly, but I found it was too heartbreaking to let them go. I then became a candy-striper, volunteering at a local hospital. I loved to read, so I volunteered with a literacy foundation.

I volunteered at the Rape Crisis Center in California then with the Nashville Crisis Hot Line to help victims of domestic violence. In later years, I became a Court Appointed Special Advocate, becoming the voice for abused children.

Find your passion and your talents, and then figure out a way to put them to work for those in need. Volunteer work helps you learn about yourself, and you’ll be surprised to learn that you get more out of it than what you give. Perhaps it is because “whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of His, you did for Him.”

If you like to work with your hands, consider Habitat for Humanity or community paint programs. If you love your books, there are many needs for tutors, or you can read at local schools and libraries. Do you have a gift of gab? Visit our State Veterans Home and learn the stories of our residents – and then share them with others! 

If you are the creative type, make lap quilts for patients at the VA Medical Center, or teach a crafts class for PTSD therapy. Gifted musicians can share their talent at nursing homes. If you are an animal-whisperer, help train service or companion dogs, or get involved in equine therapy.

If you like to travel, go on a church mission trip, or help the American Red Cross give aid in an area devastated by natural disaster. Honor our nation’s heroes, just as the ROTC Cadets did, as their passion was taking on a physical challenge. You all have special gifts – tapping into them to serve others is a sure-fire way to love your volunteer work!

You might even be one of those with more money than time or talent! There is no shortage of worthy non-profit organizations that can use donations to expand their reach in helping others.

Serve your families… serve your neighborhoods… find a way “to serve the least of these”… and you will find that no matter what battles or challenges you face in life… the reward that comes from blessing others will carry you through to the next mission.

Please don’t forget to thank those who have served or are serving in the Armed Forces and offer them a handshake of gratitude that shows them you care.

May God Bless you on your next chapter in life, and may you allow Him to use you to Bless others. Congratulations, Maryville College graduates!! The world awaits your legacy!


Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”