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First Sergeants: More Than a Position, A Calling That Requires Having a Heart as Strong as a Diamond

People form a diamond shape.

First Sergeants from the 908th Airlift Wing perform a Diamond ceremony during a retirement ceremony for a 908th first sergeant November 2 at Maxwell Air Force Base. First Sergeants are essential to mission success. (U.S. Air Force photo by Bradley J. Clark)

two people talk

Senior Master Sgt. Eva Appiah, 357th Airlift Squadron and 908th Operations Group first sergeant speaks with Chief Master Sgt. James Rickels, 908th loadmaster superintendent about any issues facing the people in the loadmaster section. Appiah is currently the president of the 908th's First Sergeant Council.

a person conducts a virtual class looking at a computer

Master Sgt. Ashley Sexton, 25th Aerial Port Squadron first sergeant, gives a virtual class to squadron members during a unit training assembly in the time of COVID-19. First sergeants are viatl for mission success. (U.S. Air Force photo by Bradley J. Clark)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

“Excuse me, Shirt, do you have a minute to talk?” pleaded the Airman.

Chief Master Sgt. Tracy Cornett, 908th Airlift Wing command chief, recalled when he assisted two airmen who were contemplating suicide during his time as a first sergeant from 2010 to 2017.

“It would have been easy to walk away and tell them to come back,” said Cornett. “But I saw the need immediately and was able to get them the assistance they needed so as to result in a positive outcome so that they could preserve life and continue with their careers to this day.”

Many other first sergeants have experiences just like Cornett’s.

The Air Force first recognized the outcry for a career field that focused on the health and well-being of Airmen and the overall unit by establishing the first sergeant position in 1961. This move was then followed by the Strategic Air Command’s 15th Air Force opening their own first sergeant school in 1967 at March Air Force Base, California.

It is vital for units to have first sergeants that have their finger on the pulse of a command. By getting service members at every level the chance to be taken care of fosters an environment of open communication. This transparency allows for both junior enlisted and top leadership to succeed in their mission.

But how will a first sergeant know what is going on in someone’s life?

Trust. That’s how.

“A first sergeant’s job is to know their people, and that can be hard when there are walls to break through so that the team can trust you,” said Master Sgt. Lelia Collins, 908th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron first sergeant. “When I am given the honor to listen to an Airman’s story, it means that they trust me and they trust my guidance; that to me, is the most rewarding part of this career field.”

Another part of being a first sergeant that extends outside the squadron and group level is expectations.

Cornett, the Wing functional area manager for the First Sergeants, said that servant leaders who want to become first sergeants, or are currently first sergeants, are expected to have integrity, compassion, empathy and trustworthiness.

Putting these characteristics on display can be a bit daunting for individuals that might feel timid towards public speaking or confrontation.

Master Sgt. Ashley Sexton, 25th Aerial Port Squadron first sergeant, said that having empathy, transparency and level-headedness come in handy when she must have some difficult conversations. This is especially true when she has to hold someone accountable for their actions.

“You will have to be a servant leader for every Airman, even if you believe the behavior or decision that Airman made goes against your values and the Air Forces values,” said Sexton. “You are there to help lead Airmen. Sometimes, that is to help mentor and navigate them through their Air Force Career, and sometimes it is helping them prepare for a life outside of the military.”

Regardless of if an Airmen needs assistance or discipline, the first sergeants are there for the Airman’s benefit.

This is why many first sergeants feel that the part of the first sergeant’s creed that impacts them the most besides “everyone is my business” is the line, “My job is people…their health, morale, discipline and welfare.”

“When [an Airman’s] individual or family’s health, morale, discipline and welfare aren’t in a good place then our overall mission suffers,” said Collins.

Collins also said that first sergeants are expected to protect sensitive information and to still be an unbiased leader in their organization.

Another reality of being a first sergeant in the Air Force Reserve is that they are held to the same standards as active duty first sergeants in that they are on-call 24/7.

One first sergeant that is constantly reminded of the weight of his role is Senior Master Sgt. Eric Sharman, 908th Maintenance Squadron first sergeant.

“My wife and children know that sometimes I can’t make certain events, or I have to work late, but they are very understanding,” said Sharman. “They know that dad’s job is to help people.”

These expectations coupled with the reality of the gravity of the information they must keep tucked away can leave a heavy weight on a first sergeant’s shoulders.

But they are not alone.

According to Sharman, first sergeants lean on one another.

“Having a strong team of first sergeants allows us to work together and to lean on each other in times of need,” said Collins.

Sharman said that being able to depend on one another is essential when another first sergeant could potentially live hours away from an Airman in need.

“My job doesn’t stop at the doors of the AES squadron; it extends to the Group and to the Wing,” said Collins. “It also doesn’t stop there either because it extends to the families of those in my Squadron, Group and Wing.”

This devotion to others, regardless of what unit they are with, is the physical manifestation of the line in the first sergeant’s creed that reads, “We take care of our own.”

This hope and self-service brought by the comradery of fellow Airmen and first sergeants shows how rewarding being a first sergeant can be. This same feeling of a job well done is why many first sergeants said that regardless of the exhausting days they have had, it was all worth it.

“I don’t care what the issue is, I’ll find you the resource, be the ear, the shoulder and the support needed to get through whatever it is,” said Senior Master Sgt. Eva Appiah, 908th Operations Group and 357th Airlift Squadron first sergeant.

Appiah said that she feels so strongly about being there for others, no matter how challenging the issue, is because she knows that those she cares for are worth this effort.

Knowing that a first sergeant did everything in their power to help a single Airman feels like a major accomplishment to them, said Sharman.

“When you see your people thriving in their professional and personal lives, and you know that you’ve helped them through good times and bad; it’s very fulfilling,” he added.

One does not have to be a first sergeant to be a positive figure for another Airman or an entire unit; but it helps.

When asked what she would say to someone that was considering to be a first sergeant, Collins said, “It’ll be the most rewarding job you’ve ever had, and it will change your life, and hopefully the lives of those around you as well.”

As well as helping others, the first sergeant position has numerous career benefits. It is a good thing that there are always opportunities to become a first sergeant, said Cornett.

“It’s very rare to see a unit without a commander, and it should be the same with the first sergeant position,” said Sharman.

He also added that becoming a first sergeant can be one of the most rewarding career moves a person can make.

Being a first sergeant looks good on paper, but it cannot be forgotten that the first sergeants chose to come into their role because of where their heart was.

“This career field allows you to give back to your service in the form of helping those that need it most,” said Collins. “It gives perspective because you see our service members at their greatest and at their lowest. Being a first sergeant gives me the drive to do better every day, it helps me want to be a better Airman for our members and it pushes me to be better in every aspect of my life.”

If interested in becoming a First Sergeant, speak with a current or former first sergeant, supervisor, commander or command chief.