First sergeants: 'People are our business'

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jarrod Grammel
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
First sergeants have been around since the first days of the military in America. They even began wearing diamonds to distinguish themselves in the mid-1800's. The first sergeant played as integral a role in their units then as they continue to today.

Unlike the other branches of the Armed Forces, the Air Force first sergeant is a special duty and not a rank. As a result, only the most qualified NCOs earn the prestigious title of first sergeant.

Today's first sergeant ranks constantly need new outstanding men and women to provide critical support to Air Force missions around the globe.

We are not currently undermanned, but projections show a notable decline in the next six months, said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Frank, first sergeant special duty manager for the Office of the Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force. Even a few positions left unfilled leaves commanders without a key advisor and Airmen who do not have the trained first sergeant they deserve.

First sergeants provide experience, knowledge and act as vital advisors to commanders.

"First sergeants provide a liaison between the commander and the unit," said Chief Master Sgt. Frank Batten, 23rd Wing command chief.

First sergeants are outside the chain of command giving Airmen someone they can turn to for any issue.

"First sergeants are like a big brother or sister," said Master Sgt. Darryl Bennett, 23rd Medical Group first sergeant. "Without them you have to find things out the hard way."

With the role they play, first sergeants are on call 24 hours-a-day seven days a week, and often work long irregular hours.

"It is a demanding job," said Sergeant Bennett. "You have to know how to balance your family with work. You are on call at all times. You can't rely on plans, and you have to learn how to multitask."

The long hours and tough work they perform keeps many applicants from joining this special duty. While many have a mental image of what a first sergeant is, a lot of mystery surrounds the "diamond wearers".

"Not enough is known about first sergeants and their importance," said Chief Batten. "It is a very demanding job. Most people only see the negative side, but there are rewards. Most people don't see the benefits. There is no better job than to help an Airman who is in need."

The current standard for assigning first sergeants depends on the number of Airmen in the unit. Master sergeants serve with units that are made up of 250 Airmen or less. Senior master sergeants serve in units of up to 550, and chief master sergeants serve in units of 550 Airmen or more.

"The manpower standard for the first sergeant dates back to the '70s, and is rooted in the old Commander's Support Staff standard when this AFSC was literally a career field," said Chief Frank.

"In March of this year, we took steps towards a new manpower standard that will look at the amount of people, not just enlisted, that should 'earn' a first sergeant, and what is the threshold that one first sergeant can handle," he added.

The first sergeant special duty is also instituting a three year stabilized tour for first tenured first sergeants in the CONUS.

"Previously it was only a two year code, driving some management problems, and causing difficulty with tenures, assignments, and career field return." They believe this will help with assignments and strengthen the special duty across the board.

Chief Batten served as a first sergeant as an additional duty in an Equipment Maintenance Squadron for a year.

"If anyone is interested in becoming a first sergeant, I encourage you to talk to your first sergeant," he said. "It can be a demanding job but the benefits outweigh the negative aspects. I loved it, and it gave me a lot of knowledge."

There are many reasons NCOs apply for first sergeant duty, but the one trait that is common and an unofficial requirement is the desire to help Airmen.

First sergeants are responsible for the health, morale, career progression, mentoring and recognition of their Airmen. The first sergeant's motto "People are our business and our business is people," demonstrates their dedication to the well being of their Airmen.