SUMNER COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) – Nearly every week for the last seven years, Ernest Grinder has sat beside the Sumner County Veterans Memorial and reflected.
“It’s a place of quiet and tranquility,” Grinder said.
Tucked away behind a county building along Belvedere Drive in Gallatin, the memorial lists the names of all military members from Sumner County who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The name on the bottom right is that of his daughter-in-law, Billie Jean Grinder.
“It helps me feel a closeness,” Ernest said. “Most of us have an opportunity to put our life on the line. Most of us never have to give that ultimate sacrifice. Billie Jean was called upon to do that.”
Born into a military family, Billie Jean grew up around helicopters and always wanted to fly.
She graduated from Smyrna High School in 2002 and quickly joined the Tennessee National Guard at the age of 17.
“There’s no question, she was breaking those glass ceilings,” Ernest said.
Eventually attending flight school, Billie Jean became a helicopter pilot and married Ernest’s son Sam.
“She and my son had all kinds of plans for the future. Wonderful plans for the future. But that wasn’t to be,” he said.
On Feb. 21, 2010, Billie Jean was serving in Iraq when she was involved in a helicopter crash about 30 miles south of Mosul.
The 25-year-old, a Chief Warrant Officer II, was killed along with a captain from Knoxville.
“You hear people say it gets easier. It doesn’t get any easier. The sense of loss never goes away. It’s just there. You remember and I’ll carry it to my grave,” Ernest said.
The first female Tennessee Guard member to die in a combat zone, Billie Jean’s name is also on the Sumner County Wall of Honor alongside her father-in-law, husband, mother, stepfather, and an array of other family members.
The names on that wall are many from the county who have served since the Civil War. The Wall of Honor is maintained by the Vietnam Veterans of America.
“Her willingness to give her life for the freedom of all of us is, well it just brings chills and tears,” the organization’s president Barry Rice told News 2.
Memorials for Billie Jean expand outside of Sumner County.
Several signs at Interstate 40 and Interstate 840 near Lebanon designate a portion of that roadway as the Billie Jean Memorial Interchange.
“We would much rather she were here with us, but it makes me proud that she is a hero,” Ernest said. “She did what soldiers do. Sacrifice for freedom.”