Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 5, 2021

William's story continues

Some stories keep unfolding. This is one of them.

By the last day of January 1991 - 30 years ago last Sunday - Operation Desert Storm was well on the way to victory, freeing Kuwait from the military forces of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Spirit 03 - an AC 130 gunship - was flying back to its base after a successful night-time mission over Kuwait when the crew received a distress call from some U.S. Marines in trouble on the ground. The big slow-moving ship was an easy target in daylight, but headed toward the Marines to lend a hand. Under heavy fire, the crew destroyed the enemy missile battery and the Marines escaped. But the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile. All 14 crew members died.

In the fall of 2013, I was walking from the parking lot to my campus office when my attention was drawn to a small plaque by a young oak tree. I had walked by the tree countless times without ever noticing it. But someone had placed two small American flags on either side of the plaque. The tree had been planted in April 1991 to honor Spirit 03's navigator Capt. William D. Grimm, a Kansas State University graduate.

I wanted to know more about this young man who was only 28 when he died. I searched the internet and read articles about his wife and daughters. The university foundation directed me to a window display in his honor in Richard Myers Hall, the home of military studies. I also interviewed his father, Jim. That culminated in my 2013 Veterans Day column, "William and his oak tree."

On April 22, 2017, the Air Force ROTC Detachment at K-State sponsored a 5k run to raise funds for a bench in William's honor.
Capt. William D. Grimm

Husband Art and I drove through campus that day to see the runners and noticed several people gathered around William's tree. We stopped and discovered his two sisters, a brother and a nephew there. We chatted and took a few pictures. The bench was installed nearly a year later in front of Myers Hall. I normally do not repeat a column topic, but felt that the run, the bench and meeting William's family had added enough to his story to warrant another, prompting "William's bench."

In 2019, country singer Tim Atwood began sharing William's story after a 2016 performance of his single, "I'll Stand Up and Say So." At that performance, Air Force veteran Stacy Britton, who was present at a memorial service for Spirit-03's crew, gave Tim a memorial bracelet she had been wearing for 26 years in honor of William. She felt Tim was the appropriate person to "carry the torch" for this American hero. Tim vowed to honor Grimm's memory at every performance. When Tim's wife Roxane contacted K-State in an effort to reach William's family, she was referred to me. I have never revisited a story three times, but "William - take 3" broke that barrier.

I later heard from Roxane they were moving ahead with a plan to get William's family together to give them the bracelet and perhaps travel to Kansas, where William is buried at the Fort Riley cemetery. That Kansas trip happened last March when Tim, Roxane and videographer B.J. Mezek visited Manhattan and the campus. I arranged interviews with Tricia Heger, who dated William when they were both students at K-State, the director of K-State's Office of Military and Veterans Affairs, and several others. I escorted them on campus to see William's tree, his bench and the university's World War I and World War II memorials.

Then the pandemic hit. I wondered if anything further would come of those plans. But I shouldn't have doubted because Roxane has a big heart and is blessed with much persistence. This past fall, she shared that Tim, William's daughters, Stephanie and Elizabeth, and his brother, James, would appear on Trinity Broadcasting Network's "Huckabee" show. The broadcast date was last Sunday - the 30th anniversary of William's death. It included an interview with William's father Jim. During the show, Tim presented the bracelet to Stephanie. He also performed his new single, "You First," in honor of all Gold-Star families - families who have lost loved ones in service to their country. Tim was surprised when Mike Huckabee presented him with a K-State Presidential Challenge Coin issued by university President Richard B. Myers for his work honoring veterans.

Tim said although he hadn't met William, he felt he somehow knew him:

... I know his heart. I know he was a man of valor who loved our country. Having this bracelet around my wrist has reminded me to be a better servant to our country and all it stands for. ... It was a privilege to honor the Grimm family on this show. ... Being a part of this bracelet's journey was such an honor. I feel like the Grimm family is now part of my family. The Grimms are discussing now how they want to share the bracelet. It looks like the entire family will take turns wearing William's bracelet - his father, brothers, sisters, and daughters. That makes me feel good.

William knew the risks he shouldered signing up for the service and did so willingly. And he seemed like a person who would be surprised at the effect his life has had on those Marines, a popular country singer, the president of his alma mater, a woman at a concert and a columnist he never met. Words like "Thank you for your service to our country" are entirely inadequate at times like these, but will have to do.

Grimm family bracelet presentation video

Additional details are in these earlier columns, but also contain items included here for completeness:

Column 1: William and his oak tree
Column 2: William's bench
Column 3: William - take 3

Upper-left: (l-r) Nick Homburg, journalism professor; Art DeGroat, executive director of the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs; Gloria Freeland, journalism professor; Roxane Atwood; B.J. Mezek, videographer; Tricia Heger; Tim Atwood. Upper-right: (l-r) James Grimm, William's brother; Elizabeth Grimm, William's daughter; Stephanie (Grimm) Webb, William's daughter; Tim Atwood; Mike Huckabee. Lower row (l-r): 1. Jim Grimm, William's father; 2. bracelet on Tim's wrist; 3. Coin issued by K-State to Tim; 4. Tim presenting Stephanie with the bracelet. (Upper-left photo and bracelet photo from Freeland; others from Huckabee YouTube captures.)

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