JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
The diamond in the rough.
The sharpest tool in the toolbox. One sharp rock. These are a few phrases that describe which the role of the first sergeant is.
The origin of the symbolism behind the modern Air Force first sergeant is unknown, but a common theory relates back to the Army role. While the rest of the troops would remove their shirts while doing manual labor in hot weather, the lead NCO would continue to wear his in order for others to know whom to seek further instructions from. They would ask 'the shirt.'
The duty is performed in different ways by the Army, the Air Force and the Marines. It often becomes perceived as a tough billet, because the first sergeant is who people see when there's trouble. But the shirt is also someone who can help out.
Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin Walker, 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron First sergeant, wants to try to change that stigma. Walker, who has been in the military for 17 years and is originally from Ames, Texas, said he has been helped by first sergeants, and helped out others as a first sergeant.
"We had a member who was due to go on leave on Dec. 12," he said. "He came to me and said his mom was having emergency surgery. I told him that in order for me to put him in for emergency leave, his family, on their end, would have to notify the Red Cross, which in turn would contact me directly. Then we'd have some paperwork to fill out to get them put on emergency leave, which gives them priority at the airlines. We'll get a high priority with the airlines, so usually we can just pick up the phone and call the airline, tell them we've got a member on emergency leave, and they can go.
"I wanted it to happen fairly quickly, so I got his confirmation number and called the airlines. We have Operation Warm Heart that could help financially if needed. He bought the ticket and ended up leaving that Friday morning. He made it home in time to handle the family emergency and it was good."
Operation Warm Heart is an organization run by first sergeants. It is similar to Air Force Aid, except that no repayment is needed. While AFA provides an interest-free loan, those qualifying for Operation Warm Heart are simply given the funds.
"You can go to your first sergeant and say, for example, my windshield was broken on my car and I don't have the funds for that," he said. "Your shirt can go directly to Operation Warm Heart. It's a case-by-case basis. As long as you exhaust all the other opportunities, Operation Warm Heart will step in and give you the money and expect nothing in return."
Walker said his own experience as a senior airman played a large part in inspiring him to be a shirt.
"In 1998, I was stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam," he said. "I deployed in February of 1998 and went to Al Dhafra Air Base. My brother had contacted the Red Cross from Texas. I was lying in my bed with headphones on, and this guy, I don't remember if it was my first sergeant or if it was a fill-in, came into my tent and said we just got a Red Cross notification that your father passed away. He said we needed to get me out of there on a plane pretty quick.
"For probably two or three hours, I was getting everything I could together, the same guy comes back and tells me a KC-10 Extender had just taken off, and they had called it back to pick me up. So I grab my stuff and we throw it in the back of his truck. We go to the flight line and the KC-10 pulls up. They put out a ladder, I get on, they throw my luggage in and we're off. I was home in about 27 hours."
Walker said his father hadn't actually died yet, but was surviving on machines. They were going to pull the plug.
"He had asked to see me before they disconnected him. So we talked for about an hour or so, and then he said he was ready to go," he recalled. "I got home just in time. I stayed there and we went through all the arrangements. I stayed about three weeks.
"I thought it was pretty cool, I mean, they jumped through a lot to call an aircraft back to pick up this one single little Airman up. That was really awesome. To fly around the world in 27 hours and get back home to see that was good, especially considering how many people aren't able to. That was amazing."
He was in Osan Air Force Base, Korea, when he got the chance to try out first sergeant duties himself.
"I went to the first sergeant's symposium and did a little 'under-shirting' there," he said. "Then I came here and there weren't any more problems than any other shop, but there were some problems. So I'd fill in and be something like the disciplinarian of the fire department. I started talking to the shirt and got involved."
The 'diamond in the rough' explained that, as a firefighter, his work hours weren't family friendly.
"Being in the fire service, you work twenty-four hours on, twenty-four hours off," he said. "I enjoyed every minute of it, but my daughter was growing up and I just had the opportunity to become a shirt and chose to come here and do it. It gave me the opportunity to go home and have dinner with my family every night and sleep in the same bed, instead of sleeping in the fire station for one night, then going back home and such. Plus, I'd had a little bit of practice at shirt duties by then; my writing skills were improving.
"I always knew I wanted to help people," he said, "I want to remove the stigma from the first sergeant that every time you're in the first sergeant's office, it's always bad. That's really not the case, it's not the case at all. There are a lot of things done behind the scenes that are never advertised, just like Operation Warm Heart. It's not widely advertised because we don't want people to abuse the system.
"There are a lot of things first sergeants do behind the scenes that the masses will never know because that's our own piece of the pie, it's our own wing within itself," Walker explained. "Emergency leave is a great example. Just like helping someone get their heat. If it's not 50 degrees or below, a lot of times housing won't come out because it's not considered an emergency. So we might get a call saying 'hey Shirt, we've got a brand new baby in the house and we need some heat.' We'll say we got it, man. So we call around and a lot of times, they are really good about taking a first sergeant's word that it's a serious situation. Those are the little things that are never advertised because that's our little thing."
"I don't think we can ever completely change the stigma of thinking you'll be in trouble because you've got to go see the first sergeant. The thing I think we can do is fit together as our own organization."
The 'sharpest tool in the toolbox' said a lot is involved with even a day in the life of a first sergeant.
"A day in the life of a first sergeant is crazy," he said. "It depends on what your squadron has going on. You're involved in pretty much everything in the squadron. Maybe not directly, but indirectly, you're involved in every decision-making process in the squadron, and sometimes outside of your squadron as well.
"I get notified when one of my members has some sort of action taken against them, or they've allegedly done something wrong. Then I receive all the information, and I immediately transmit it to my commander, who in turn will channel it up to the Group, and from there up to the wing, so that there are no surprises.
Networking is one of Walker's favorite things about being a shirt.
"Personally," he said. "I form relationships around the base; with legal, with the Military and Family Readiness Center, there are a lot of organizations we work with that you have to maintain a strong relationship with. You never want to burn a bridge. I form relationships with all these organizations; you never know who you're going to need.
"The first sergeant world is a very tight-knit community," he said. "I'll just send an email to JBER diamonds or JBER first sergeants, or my chief because he was a first sergeant, if I don't know about something, and, in seconds sometimes, there will be 10 or 15 examples of what to do. I really do like that networking. If I have never dealt with it, there's another first sergeant who has. We share freely with each other.
The role of a first sergeant, like every other position, is largely dependent on how the individual chooses to perform it. The Air Force first sergeant position is different than the other branch's positions.
"When I attended the First Sergeant Academy in February, we had the Marines come in," he said. "The Marines, the Army, the Air Force, we lead differently, represent our squadrons differently. The Army and Marines first sergeant duty is a permanent position, whereas for us it's a special duty. We are the only ones that are not. We have to return to our career field either after the first tour, which is three years, or the second to give you a total of six. You can only do two three-year tours as a first sergeant.
Those retiring as a first sergeant get a unique ceremony. Other first sergeant's form a diamond formation and step forward to present the flag. The formation, to Walker, symbolizes being the sharpest in the toolbox.
In the First Sergeant Academy, Walker learned an illustration he enjoys sharing with others.
"I tell people to be the duck," he said. "If you sit and watch a duck just cruise across a pond, it looks just so graceful and beautiful; the waves that come around the duck are just rolling. What you don't see are the little feet going to work beneath the water. But he's got a steady head; with water-proof feathers, the water just rolls off his back.
"I relate that to the first sergeant. You can be personal with people, but when it hits the fan, you have to let it all roll off your back and not take it too personally. I always tell people 'be the duck', be calm and collected. No one can ever see you working hard. You never see the duck's feet under water. I thought that was pretty cool, so that's what I tell people is be the duck."
The first sergeant said he loves his job.
"I'm having a blast, I'm really having fun," he said. "I really do love people, love it."