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NEWS | July 12, 2012

Air Force first shirts are diamond sharp

By Airman 1st Class Ryan Throneberry Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs

My job is people - Every One is My Business. I dedicate my time and energy to their needs; their health, morale, discipline and welfare. I grow in strength by strengthening my people. My job is done in faith; my people build faith. My job is people - EVERY ONE IS MY BUSINESS.

The first sergeants' motto embodies the dedication required for this special duty as it is their job to maintain the welfare of the service members under their influence.
First sergeants, or "first shirts" as they are often called, are accountable to respond to the needs of unit members 24 hours a day, 7 days a week requiring them to work long and irregular hours.

"First sergeants commonly use the slogan 'people are our business,'" said Senior Master Sgt. Vincent Lommen, 305th Aerial Port Squadron first sergeant. "This phrase is so true. Whether it be junior Airmen within my squadron, civilians in the helping agencies on the installation, or senior leaders in the wing, building relationships with people is crucial."

First sergeants are expected to epitomize the highest qualities of Air Force senior non-commissioned officers. These qualities require the first sergeant to always remain perceptive, credible and exemplify the core values of the U.S. Air Force.

An eligible first-sergeant candidate must be a master sergeant or a master sergeant select who is highly motivated and capable of fulfilling the first sergeant role. It is critical for applicants to be financially stable, have no marital issues and are able to maintain physical training standards. This special duty is held for three years. First shirts will relinquish his or her primary duties of their regular job while assuming this role. First sergeants can choose to serve another term of this special duty after their first duty cycle is complete.

"As I became an NCO and started supervising Airmen, I realized that I got more satisfaction from helping them get through a crisis than I did in performing my core duties," said Lommen. "As I increased in rank, I was responsible for even more Airmen and I received even more gratification from being able to help them. Eventually, I decided to be a first sergeant so I could devote all my time to helping Airmen. This is my core duty now and I love it."

First sergeants must work closely with the command chief master sergeant to prepare the enlisted force to execute the wing and base missions. First sergeants must also participate in a variety of activities that support the total needs of the military community.

Discipline is also a large part of first sergeant duties as many minor and major transgressions are channeled through them for resolution. Today's infractions include Airmen who receive driving under the influence charges or participate in domestic disputes of any kind. A hot topic for many first sergeants is Airmen failing or not currently meeting fitness standards, resulting in administrative holds. First sergeants are not limited to assisting only enlisted personnel; they also assist officers in their unit with financial, legal and physical training issues.

The diamond on their rank insignia symbolizes the time-honored special duty which has become a crucial part of each Air Force squadron.
The history of the notable diamond dates back to 1847, when Army first sergeants were first authorized to wear this distinction centered on the chevrons. The history of the first sergeant in general, however, is much older.
Feldwebel were the 17th century Prussian Army equivalent to today's first sergeants. Feldwebels were tasked with keeping the commander informed of events while maintaining unit obedience and ironically enough, were the only NCOs allowed to beat the soldiers.

There is a stark contrast between today's first sergeants and those of the past. Modern day first shirts are much more affable; regularly visit ailing service members in the hospital. A majority of their core tasks still involves disciplinary actions, yet a first sergeant's duties are far-reaching into the realm of unit cohesion and morale today.

George Washington relied heavily on Gen. Baron Von Steuben to help him organize the new American Army during the revolutionary war. Steuben directed the majority of his attention to outlining the role of the company first sergeant, his take on the Prussian feldwebel. This position would prove to be key in maintaining a unit's obedience and discipline. Thus began the role of the first sergeant in the American military.

"History has taught us that almost all successful squadrons had a strong first sergeant at its core," said Master Sgt. Don Pedro, 2nd and 32nd Air Refueling Squadrons first sergeant from Pawtucket, R.I. "First sergeants set the tone for their squadron."

The position does not come without challenges, however.

"Being a role model and striving for perfection, while also having a family of your own is probably the biggest challenge," said Pedro. "Maintaining the patience and balance is not always easy."

Pedro is the first sergeant for 150 enlisted and 150 officer personnel. Pedro is only one of many exceptional first sergeants both here and around the globe. Although, his career in the Air Force did not seem prolific at its start, he was able to turn things around for the better.

"The first few years of my career were riddled with drama, which I mostly put on myself," said Pedro. "I wasn't what you would call a stellar Airman. Once I had a strong first shirt, it made all the difference to me. I had a whole new outlook when I had the right first sergeant."

Pedro began excelling later in his career, earning the privilege of becoming a first sergeant.

Pedro received the 305th Operations Group First Sergeant of the Year Award in 2011, solidifying his stature as one of the elite first sergeants here.

This special-duty position affords these senior NCOs the ability to help their Airmen by applying their personal experience and years of service.

"Sergeant Pedro helped me out of a tricky situation," said Staff Sgt. Larry Cawley, 2nd ARS KC-10 Extender boom operator and Pine Bluff, Pa., native. "When I tested for staff, I missed the mark by one and a half points. At the time, some of my medals and awards I had earned were not put into my personal records, keeping me from passing. He helped resolve the issue by getting in touch with the right people. He was very helpful and without him, I probably wouldn't have been promoted."

The challenges faced by today's generation of first sergeants are not new to this special duty, nor are the rewards received from their service.

"The most rewarding part of my job is being able to help Airmen help themselves," said Pedro. "Watching them grow to be good leaders based off things you help them with is an awesome aspect of my job."

(Editors note: Information in this article was taken from AFI 36-2113 and Dedication to the First Sergeant, an article by retired Army First Sgt. Rod Powers)