First sergeants ensure mission success through Airman success

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brigitte Brantley
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
There is always one person enlisted Airmen can count on to be there when times are tough or they need guidance, their first sergeant.

Air Force first sergeants, also known as "first shirts", are continuously on-call to ensure they are available to their Airmen, whether to assist with dormitory room lockouts or dealing with a serious issue during a deployment.

Due to a shortage, the Air Force is currently searching for exceptional leaders in the enlisted ranks who are interested in becoming a first sergeant.

Airmen who hold the ranks of E-7 through E-9 are eligible to apply to become a first sergeant. According to Air Force Instruction 36-2113, applicants cannot have personal, family or marital matters that would interrupt the completion of first sergeant duties. Individuals must also pass the physical fitness test, meet a certain score requirement on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test and have effective communication skills.

"The most important trait in a first sergeant is having the ability to communicate--a first sergeant has to be able to talk to different people at different levels," said Master Sgt. Darryl Bennett, 23rd Force Support Squadron first sergeant.

"For example, if a 19-year-old Airman comes in just to talk, you need to be able to communicate on his level," he said. "If that level includes video games, that's where you'll be. You have to know your people, their interests and be able to connect with them somehow."

First sergeant duty applicants go through an extensive approval process that begins with their unit commander and first sergeant before proceeding up the chain. After an interview with the base command chief master sergeant and with an endorsement from the wing commander, the application is then sent to the major command level for final approval. Once approved, individuals are then scheduled for the next available course at the First Sergeants Academy.

Although an individual may have a number of reasons for applying, a key motivator should be their passion for wanting to help others.

"When you become a first sergeant, do it for the right reasons," said Sergeant Bennett. "Do it because it's what you want to do, to make a difference. I wanted this position because I wanted to help people.

"Before becoming a first shirt, I was a recruiter," he added. "This was another opportunity where I could accomplish helping people. Many have a view that a first sergeant is this stern person only there to discipline and I wanted to be one of the people to help change that view."

Another Moody first sergeant agrees that the individuals filling the position need to have certain distinguishing qualities.

"Our job is to help Airmen deal with anything," said Master Sgt. Gerald Richard, 23rd Component Maintenance Squadron first sergeant. "They need to know they can approach their first sergeant for any reason when needed.

"This career field is a calling and those who enter it should do so because they're passionate about people and they enjoy interacting with their Airmen," he added. "Every day is so different and you come across so many different situations that you can't come into work with your day planned, because it's sure to change."

Moody Airmen know that although being called into a first sergeant's office might be for disciplinary reasons, it might also mean that they need assistance with other topics.

"It's good to have a first sergeant because that position means there's somebody available who has experience with many issues," said Senior Airman Gerardo Ramirez, 23rd Maintenance Group knowledge operator. "It also means that they are a trustworthy person who will listen to me and offer good advice.

"When I wanted to start taking classes, I had no idea what to do," said Airman Ramirez. "I used my first sergeant as a point of contact, and he guided me through everything. He showed me how to contact the school, how to sign up for financial aid, and in the end he even advised me on good techniques when studying for my final exams. This was an on-going process, but anytime I needed help he was there."

First sergeants are also viewed as a vital link between commanders, enlisted personnel and supporting agencies. They help ensure that discipline is maintained while the morale, welfare and health needs of the enlisted personnel are met.

"When I was a first sergeant at the 41st Rescue Squadron, personnel were constantly flying missions or overseas for deployments, so I would step in and offer my help when needed," said Sergeant Bennett. "I would make sure everything was taken care of on the home front, such as checking in with spouses and family members or acting as a liaison between an individual and a base agency they might need assistance with."

Sergeant Richard recognizes the job as having both positive and negative aspects.

"The only drawback I recognize with this position is the time spent away from family," he said. "When you initially become a first sergeant, your spouse and family members need to understand the amount of time this position requires because it will impact the time you spend with them.

"The most rewarding part of this job is getting a call from an Airman who you helped many years before," Sergeant Richard added. "Recently, I got a phone call from a staff sergeant who was an airman first class in my unit when she was charged with an Article 15 for some misbehavior. We sat down and discussed the situation and her options. She left with the understanding that if she was to make the Air Force a career, she could still straighten things out, and years later she has a line number for promotion to technical sergeant."

Being a first sergeant can also have a positive lasting impact on an Airman's career.

"What the Air Force is looking for is for individuals to step out of their comfort zone, complete a special duty assignment and bring back that knowledge and experience to their career fields," said Sergeant Bennett. "Anyone who spends some time in this position will have taken a step in the right direction."

Ultimately, a first sergeant's duty is to make sure that Airmen are taken care of, ensuring the Air Force mission is successfully accomplished.