There's no AFSC for that? <br> Part three: first sergeants

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Heather Heiney
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: This is the third in a series about people at Keesler in special duty positions outside of their primary Air Force specialty code.

When someone asks, "Shirt, you got a minute," a first sergeant knows they don't mean sixty ticks of a second hand. That person has a question that needs to be answered or an issue that needs to be worked out and he or she knows the shirt is there to help.

According to AFI 36-2113, The First Sergeant, "The United States Air Force First Sergeant is an expeditionary leader serving in a time-honored special duty position, rich in custom and tradition. The first sergeant works directly for and derive their authority from the unit commander and serves as the commander's critical link within the unit for all matters concerning enlisted members...They must remain vigilant for, and use the necessary authority to resolve issues that, left unchecked, would adversely impact readiness."

While all shirts spend three weeks in the First Sergeant Academy at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala., they build the necessary job skills throughout their whole careers and even their whole lives.

According to some of Keesler's own first sergeants, the special duty position requires them to have compassion, adapt to and overcome challenges, be approachable, build trust and be sincere -- all while being three places at once. They are the caretakers of their unit, the motivators, problem solvers and disciplinarians. A first sergeant fills whatever role is necessary to take care of his or her people.

"We focus on the people to get the mission done," said Master Sgt. Ryan Bienvenu, 336th Training Squadron first sergeant, "You have to be entrenched in people."

The duties of a first sergeant are liquid and shape themselves around the varying needs of the people in a unit. A few tasks the shirts are responsible for are handling emergencies, providing mentorship, reviewing enlisted performance reports and award packages and enforcing standards.

Master Sgt. James Messer, 81st Security Forces Squadron first sergeant said, "I guess you can't describe a typical day because I have not had a typical day. I don't know what's going to happen when I walk through that door or when that phone rings."

Keesler's shirts also have a first sergeants council and organize promotion ceremonies, the annual project cheer fundraiser, airman leadership school softball games, the Spartan award and the Diamond Sharp award among many other things. All of that is accomplished by only 13 first sergeants and 9 additional-duty first sergeants.

"The first sergeant career field is undermanned and the more people we can have thinking about (becoming one) early, the better," Messer said. "It's like drinking water through a garden hose but the three years will be the best time and most gratifying experience of your career."

Being a first sergeant is a three-year special duty with the option to extend for a second tour. If possible, shirts are placed with units outside of their career field. This not only prevents conflict of interest, it helps shirts see the bigger Air Force mission.

"I've gained a great deal of respect for other career fields and see why the wing is so successful," said Master Sgt. Steven Whitworth, 81st Training Wing wing staff agencies first sergeant.

While being a first sergeant means having an impact on people's lives, it can also be one of the most challenging jobs in the Air Force because they have to handle difficult and even traumatic situations.

"All first sergeants are passionate people or they wouldn't be first sergeants. They all care and want what's best. The challenge is trying to get everything done that you want to get done," Messer said.

One of the difficult parts about being passionate about people is letting go of a situation once you've done all you can. First sergeants help people through tough situations every single day and each one comes with an emotional weight.

Whitworth explained that internalizing other people's difficulties is like taking the weight from their rucksack and putting it in your own. You can easily carry it for a while, but if you continue to add the weight of each person you help, your rucksack will become too heavy and you won't be able to march on. So, once the problem is resolved you should find an outlet to let the weight go.

That is why the first sergeant's council is so essential. Not only does it keep the first sergeants up-to-date about everything happening on base, it is an avenue for discussing issues and finding resolutions.

"Sometimes a first sergeant needs a first sergeant," Whitworth said.

To apply to become a first sergeant, you must be a master sergeant select, attend the first sergeant's academy, speak well, be financially and personally stable, be motivated and demonstrate exceptional leadership and management skills and pass the physical fitness test.

Also, "You always have to have a minute," Bienvenu said.