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'Shirts' wear many hats, maintain pulse of enlisted force

  • Published
  • By Airman Anthony Jennings
  • 96th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
If five Airmen were asked what the role of a first sergeant is, they would probably give five different answers.

A young Airman in trouble might see the first sergeant as a hard-core disciplinarian, while the Airman's supervisor sees him as a mentor.

"The common perception many Airmen have is their first sergeant is someone they visit when they find themselves in trouble for counseling or disciplinary action," said Master Sgt. Robert Powers, 96th Mission Support Squadron first sergeant. "While that may be the case, more often than not, Airmen who are in trouble also need the first sergeant's help. We have the ability to put Airmen in contact with the resources they need to prevent disciplinary action."

The commander of the unit may view the first sergeant as a right hand man with the pulse of the enlisted force and a young officer sees the first sergeant as a window into the enlisted culture. Another senior NCO could see the first sergeant as a peer with knowledge and experience to lean on.

A first sergeant, also known as a "shirt," plays a multi-faceted role in today's Air Force. He or she must be a resource provider, mentor, administrative disciplinarian and people manager. They can be identified by the signature diamond sewn on their chevrons.

A first sergeant is one of the first to respond when it comes to problems with their troops. In addition to the usual troubles of getting a unit to operate efficiently, there is the growing concern of domestic situations.

Chief Master Sgt. William Lhamon, 96th Medical Operations Squadron first sergeant, remembered an experience where a young Airman died from flu-like symptoms. One of his duties as a first sergeant was to ask the Airman's spouse if she wanted to make the family notifications or if she wished the Air Force to do so.

"Without a doubt that was the hardest question I've ever had to ask anyone in my entire life," he said.

In 2005 the Air Force ended the non-volunteer policy for first sergeant special duty and opened the job to volunteers. Since then, the percentage of first sergeants in the Air Force has steadily declined and the approximately 1,200 slots have been hard to fill.

"Many first sergeants are completing their three-year tour and going back to their original career field, which is great for their AFSC, (Air Force Specialty Code) but hurts our numbers," said Master Sgt. Laprell Ellis, 728th Air Control Squadron first sergeant. "Promotions don't come easy as a first sergeant when you're competing with a career field of superstars."

"Though it takes a lot of commitment and there are great challenges to overcome, being a first sergeant is a lot of fun and very rewarding," said Master Sgt. Juanita Crain, 96th Security Forces Squadron first sergeant. "Of course the job can get busy, but it's busy by choice. It could be very easy if you didn't care, but you'll find that difficult because the Airmen are a lot of fun. I draw my energy and enthusiasm from them."

While administrative issues are a part of the job, the primary concern for a shirt is to ensure their people are mission ready. Specific duties for a first sergeant vary depending on the unit's mission requirements.

Responsibilities of all first sergeants include reviewing early promotion packages, traffic tickets, and dorm inspections, reviewing Enlisted Performance Reports, decorations, ensuring that Professional Military Education slots are filled and much more.

With the steady shuffle of paperwork, it might seem easy to become consumed in it. However, a first sergeant must be ready 24-hours a day, 365-days a year to deal with any problems their Airmen may be having.

"Being a shirt does present an enormous undertaking of managing tasks and completing paperwork, but all that must be pitched to the side if there is an emergency with personnel," Sergeant Powers said. "If you are doing something that takes away from your people, then you aren't doing the right thing."

In order to apply for first sergeant special duty, an Airman must be a master sergeant or master sergeant-select with 36 months of retainability, complete the Senior NCO Academy course, and have at least a Community College of the Air Force degree. He or she must be able to speak clearly and must be financially stable.

"The First Sergeant Academy was a lot of fun, the instructors genuinely cared and would not let you fail," said Sergeant Crain.

With a high level of motivation, the candidate must not have, nor bear, the appearance of personal, marital or family problems that could detract from the member's ability to effectively serve as a first sergeant. In addition, the applicant's physical appearance and military image must meet the highest standards expected only of the most dedicated professional Senior NCOs.

"As a first sergeant, people will generally look at you to set the standard and be the example," said Sergeant Powers. "Because of that, you have to always be doing the right thing for the right reasons. You never want your integrity to be in question if you want to maintain credibility."

Though the job may be demanding, many first sergeants take comfort knowing they have a peer support system that allows them access to experienced professionals. If there is a particular problem, someone within the system will have a solution.

"Every first sergeant has a different approach to his or her job, which makes it easy to get diverse perspectives to handling any situation," said Sergeant Crain. "Though the techniques may be different, the results are the same."