MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --
I’ve been called many things in my life: son, friend, student, private, sergeant, husband and my favorite—daddy. Daddy changed everything for me. It matured me in a way I didn’t know I needed maturing—probably why I’ve been called a few things I couldn’t repeat here. But titles, like daddy and first sergeant often carry with them a great deal of responsibility.
It’s been a year since people started calling me “First Sergeant.” It reminds me of a Steven Wright joke about when, as a child, he first heard of the title “First Lady,” he thought, “the president’s wife must be very old.” I’m old, but I’m hardly the first sergeant. I was both honored and humbled when I began to fully understand the weight of confidence placed in the diamond and its history going back to and beyond the Continental Army under George Washington.
Despite becoming a member of a unit’s leadership team, a first sergeant selection is not a promotion, but rather a new job. I’ve been describing what I do as a sort of “Air Forcey version of Human Resources.” The book answer is that I help to provide a mission-ready force to the commander.
When a commander selects his or her first sergeant, they usually look for someone who is an encyclopedia of experience (and at 27 years and three branches of military service, my commander got the full Britannica in me). Air National Guardsmen are a complex bunch. Their diverse backgrounds bring valuable ingenuity to the Air Force, but with that comes things that can be distractions to mission accomplishment. Divorce, civilian job loss, brushes with the law, a sock-puppet swearing-in and YouTube confessions are all things shirts exist to solve. I’ve lived a lot of life over the decades and I’ve made my share of mistakes, but sharing those mistakes and the lessons learned from them are proving incredibly helpful to young Airmen in my first year as a shirt.
It’s funny how the Air Force refers to first sergeants as “shirts” as if we are a heavily starched oxford, fresh from the cleaners—an example to the A1C who just pulled a smell-tested t-shirt from the hamper. Seriously though, Airmen benefit from an engaged first sergeant who is ready to aid them where they are with all the tools at his or her disposal.
As a sort-of first aid kit for Airmen, some days are Band-Aids and others are tourniquets. Resolving personality conflicts, counseling Airmen and writing awards are all common things that come with the diamond in our rank and we are usually prepared for such events. Where the limits of our first aid kit are tested is in the emergency room when you are hugging family and praying for an Airman that may not live to see tomorrow. Or when you have to inform a family that their loved one is not coming home, which I hope to never have to do.
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfein, in his pamphlet, “Sharing Success—Owning Failure,” encourages unit leadership to create an environment where success in mission accomplishment can happen, especially since most Airmen come to work looking to be successful. Goldfein says, “building this environment [requires] establishing open and engaged communication flow within the unit.” As the eyes and ears of the commander, it is absolutely the shirt’s responsibility to personally foster this interaction.
I’ll end with this; people are the heart of a unit and the First Sergeant is there to help keep that heart pumping. Use your First Sergeant. At one year in, I’m content to be measured by the perspective of each Airman I serve. When I hang up my diamond, I’ll be thankful for the opportunity to positively affect my nation’s Air Force by serving one Airman at a time.