Putting on the 'shirt'

  • Published
  • By Airman John Linzmeier
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Ranging from counseling due to troubles in the workplace, visits to family members while an Airman is deployed, or popping into the office to say hello and inquire about the welfare of a shop, first sergeants wear a variety of "hats" while on duty.

"As a first sergeant I need to be aware of what issues others are having," said Master Sgt. John Reaves, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Safety Office weapons safety superintendant and additional duty director of staff first sergeant. "If you are having a problem and aren't getting the support you need then there must be somebody to go to for help - allowing you to focus on your job."

Commonly referred to as a "Shirt", the title of first sergeant is only assigned to eligible senior non-commissioned officers responsible for representing and responding to the needs of enlisted members in their assigned unit.

Reaves' volunteered, additional duty role requires him to fulfill not only the 24/7 position of first sergeant, but also his full-time job in weapons safety.

"What made me decide to come here and be placed as an additional duty first sergeant while working in the weapons safety position," said Reaves, "is that I missed being able to help other Airmen with a one-on-one interaction, being available as a mentor and guide others through difficult times."

It is not uncommon for a first sergeant to be called in the middle of the night or while partaking in a family event to attend to an emergency.

"The days can be long," said Chief Master Sgt. Michelle Keehnen, 22nd Director of Staff superintendent. "First sergeants are accountable to respond to the needs of unit members 24/7. The benefit of a first sergeant's commitment is Airmen are able to be productive, safe members of their unit."

Keehnen completed serving nine years as a first sergeant May 1, 2013, three years longer than many Shirts who serve only one to two terms in the special duty position.

Nearly 500 Senior NCOs graduate the First Sergeants Academy, located at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., annually. Curriculum includes four weeks of online curriculum and two weeks of training at the schoolhouse.

Reaves is currently awaiting his Aug. 19, entry into the First Sergeants Academy.

"[The curriculum] covers such a broad range of aspects," said Reaves. "Whether it's a worst case scenario for an administrative discharge, all the way to coordinating appointments at the hospital to helping another get the family support they need. There's a lot of material to go over in a short amount of time. It will be interesting."

Upon graduation, Reaves will add the diamond insignia to his master sergeant stripes and be able to claim first sergeant as his primary duty title.

"The Air Force does a good job at bringing us up and teaching how to be supervisors," said Keehnen, "[such as] how to hold your people responsible, how to be compassionate and how to watch for signs and indicators."

In addition to tending to unit level obligations, first sergeants work closely with the command chief master sergeant.

The First Sergeants Council, consisting of each unit's first sergeant, gathers weekly to discuss issues and ideas to then be brought to the command chief.

"If there is an important decision out there causing morale to take a dive," said Reaves, "I need to be able to step in and say 'Sir, what we are doing is detracting from the work within our enlisted force.' We need to find a way to still achieve the ultimate goal."

Not only must first sergeants bear the highest qualities of Air Force senior NCOs, but they are expected to encourage the same personal development characteristics in their Airmen, and remind them of their origins.

"It's imperative that all the way down to the newest Airman from technical school," said Reaves, "we all understand we are representatives of the United States Air Force. Every time we step outside of the gate, you are an ambassador, a recruiter, and you are setting the example."

Often times misinterpreted as a demanding disciplinary figure, first sergeants are more so intended to support others as a coach figure.

"The biggest challenge is to help get people back on track when they are in trouble," said Keehnen, "and letting them know they're going to get through it."

Regardless the issue at hand or the Airman involved, first sergeants across the force share a common goal of maintaining morale, discipline, readiness and communication among their Airmen.

"We have a first sergeant motto," said Keehnen. "'Our job is people; people are our business.'"