Army National Guard helicopter pilot Billie Jean Grinder, 25, niece of Jim and Linda Busby of Albany, became the first female member of the Tennessee Air National Guard to die in Iraq when her Kiowa Warrior aircraft made a “hard landing” inside Quyyarah Airfield, about 30 miles south of Mosul on Sunday, Feb. 21.

Also killed was Captain Marcus Ray Alford of Knoxville, Tenn. The accident is under investigation, but no enemy contact was involved, according to military officials.

Chief Warrant Officer Grinder was from Gallatin, Tenn. She was the wife of fellow Army National Guard helicopter pilot Sam Grinder, who had returned to the United States on Feb. 1 for training. His wife was scheduled to return home in about a month.

Billie Jean Grinder enlisted in the Tennessee Army National Guard in 2002 after graduating from Smyrna High School. She comes from a long military line. Her father, Billie Davenport, an aviation mechanic, was stationed with her at Camp Speicher in Iraq. Her sister, Melissa Smith, had served in the National Guard; her father-in-law, Col. Ernie Grinder, is retired military; and her mother-in-law, Col. Bears Grinder, served in Afghanistan with the National Guard; she is Linda Busby’s sister.

Grinder was stepmother to her husband’s twin daughters, Megan and Makayla, 10.

“We are so thankful that we went to Tennessee in October while the couple were home on leave,” Jim Busby said. “You could tell how much they loved each other and how dedicated they were to the girls.”

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At a press conference held Feb. 25, Col. Bears Grinder said of her daughter-in-law, “Billie Jean had a genuine smile that was contagious. She never met a stranger and always spread her sunshine all around her. She couldn’t bear to see a stray cat or dog uncared for and adopted any that she found and loved them and took care of them.”

She enjoyed riding motorcycles, four-wheelers and dune buggies, sledding in the snow and riding in her convertible, Grinder said.

“Yet, she was mature in a way that few of her peers are,” Col. Grinder said. “Her maturity at such a young age, her incredible energy and drive, and her optimism allowed her to succeed in any endeavor. Billie Jean was, and is, an incredible role model for her stepdaughters, her family and all who knew her.”

The colonel added, “She taught us how to live and how to love — this is her legacy — and these are some of our memories that will sustain us in our tragic time.”

Since the beginning of the war in 2003, some 4,378 U.S. military personnel have been killed serving their country.

Funeral services have not been planned at this time.

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