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Heather Grant brings military mentality to US Senate campaign

By Megan Cassella, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 16--Editor's note: Second in a series on how the careers of the Republican U.S. Senate candidates have prepared them for office.

Heather Grant says the military taught her to be a problem-solver. But truth is, she's always liked to fix things.

When her father started an insurance business in the '90s, she went to work for him to fix it up. When her son was diagnosed with benign chest tumors when he was a baby, she became a nurse so she could better care for him. And when, after nursing school, she heard that military families weren't getting good health care, she joined the Army so she could try to fix that, too.

Once discharged, she moved to Wilkesboro and re-immersed herself in the state where she grew up and found a new problem she wanted to fix: Washington.

Grant says her decision to run for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate was based on "coming home from the military and realizing that our federal government had gone crazy, and that the things I grew up with -- the life that I experienced -- was no longer the same kind of life my children were going to experience."

The Army, she says, has prepared her to fix that.

"My mentor in the military, when I was branch chief, said, 'Don't come to me with a problem if you don't have a solution. ? If you haven't thought of a solution, then you haven't thought the problem all the way through,' " Grant said.

"How can we expect any less from our elected representatives?"

The 'military mentality'

Grant was medically discharged in 2012, after tearing a ligament in her ankle during training. Chronic regional pain syndrome has left her with a spinal cord implant for comfort, paid for with veterans benefits. She uses a cane.

Now 39, with her short but decorated military career behind her, she has embarked on what -- if elected -- would be her third career.

She's a long-shot candidate in the crowded Republican primary race, steadily trailing the trio of Thom Tillis, Greg Brannon and Mark Harris that has taken the lead.

But she says her common-sense solutions and belief in the Constitution will help her compete against candidates with more political experience, greater name recognition and deeper pockets.

In the Army, Grant started as a labor, delivery and postpartum staff nurse at her station in Fort Bliss, Texas, and worked her way up to branch chief for behavioral health care coordination there. When she started doing administrative work, she created a new, more efficient way to run the unit, which led to her promotion.

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Kamisha Ross, who served with Grant in Texas, said the foundation Grant laid there helped the unit run smoothly long after her departure.

"She made sure everything was lined up," Ross said. "Even when she was on military leave, she didn't have to answer her phone -- she really didn't -- but she still did.

"When she left (the Army), that handoff was smooth."

Grant credits that to the Army's concept of building continuity, and wants to bring that process into politics.

"It's gotta be that military mentality: You're my battle buddy. Even when you're no longer that elected official and that next conservative takes your place, you've gotta send them an email or call them up and say, 'If you need anything, I will help you,' " she said.

"We've got to stop acting like we're not on the same group and the same side."

Ross said Grant was a calm, dedicated mentor who led by example: "Whatever she told us to do, she actually did it, too," she said.

As branch chief, Grant oversaw the behavioral health unit. Much of her work dealt with receiving troops coming back from overseas, evaluating their condition and connecting them with mental health resources after they left the base.

"Not everyone can be in that field," said Ross. "As medical professionals, you really feel their burden, and anyone that didn't -- they didn't stay long.

"You had to have a sense of caring, and we knew it right off the bat."

Battling the big guys

Grant spent much of her time in the Army meeting with colleagues who outranked her.

And in a culture where rank carries significant weight, Grant said she learned to disagree with her superiors firmly but respectfully.

"It's all about approach, and the military has taught me that, because there is always somebody who outranks you -- always," she said.

"You kind of learn to work within the confines of respecting the rank, and even when you disagree with what the person in that rank says, respect it and still show how you have to move forward to get to where you need to be."

Grant is in a similar situation in the Senate race -- among the other top candidates, she's the youngest and the one with the smallest campaign. And she's the only woman vying for the GOP nomination.

The latest voter poll from Public Policy Polling shows Grant pulling 7 percent support, a 4-point drop from a month ago. The new numbers prompted Grant's husband, Michael, who is running her campaign, to send out a news release saying the data had been manipulated.

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The population polled was 48 percent female, the release said, lower than the North Carolina demographic that falls between 51 and 53 percent. (Tom Jensen of PPP said the sampling was weighted more heavily male because the majority of Republican primary voters are men.)

Grant largely pulls her support from women voters.

"When you look at politics, women get a 5 to 6 percent bump, and we know that," she said. "But I don't think I am doing so well just because I'm a woman.

"I think I'm doing well because when I go out and I talk to people, I'm real. There's no consultant telling me what to say, how to be, where to stand."

Facing financial troubles

These days, Grant is a family nurse practitioner in a doctor's office and works at a Wilkes County urgent care clinic on an as-needed basis. She has three children, ages 21, 12 and 5.

Her husband of 17 years adopted his wife's oldest daughter as his own. He also put off plans to go to law school to run her campaign, and the family is operating with only one income. In 2005, they were in a similar situation after he lost his job working in cable while his wife was still in nursing school. The couple filed for bankruptcy.

"It was one of those things we had to do," Heather Grant said. "We did it or we lost our house."

She said before they filed, they had never thought they'd need to have more than a couple of months' worth of money in their savings. Now they stick to a tighter budget and prioritize more, she said.

"When I talk about living day-to-day reality to Washington perception, it's because I actually know what day-to-day reality is like when you're living paycheck to paycheck."


(c)2014 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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