First sergeants, or first shirts or shirts, are the front-line ambassadors to unit commanders for maintaining the health, morale, and welfare of everyone assigned.
They stay vigilant on watching for things that may adversely impact the readiness of the Airmen and the mission.
In the Air Force, first sergeant is not a grade, it’s a special duty designation. It’s filled by a senior enlisted member who has the experience, training, and attitude to help commanders and supervisors provide guidance to Airmen, prepare members and families for deployments, help them through hardships, adapt to military environments, and adjust to a new unit.
“People think that it only takes rank to be a shirt,” said Master Sgt. Joshua Dinger, 310th Aircraft Maintenance Unit first sergeant. “That’s not the case. You have to have the ‘care factor’ because what a shirt deals with on a daily basis will test the limits of what you’re capable of. Shirts need to be able to help their Airmen in their time of need without judgement.”
Shirts ensure Airmen can continue to work and complete the mission, not only at the home station but in the environments in which they will be deployed.
“Just like a car, we provide the maintenance and resources to keep Airmen deployment ready, ensuring their efficiency and effectiveness,” said Senior Master Sgt. Sean O’Sullivan, 56th Security Forces Squadron first sergeant.
Shirts are designed to be the one-stop shop for assistance and knowledge of resources for all Airmen. Whether it’s for financial assistance, guidance, administrative correctional actions, or getting Airmen who need someone to talk to a mental health provider.
“Utilize your first shirt,” said Dinger. “They are there to help you on a 24/7 basis. My first instinct is to make sure an Airman is okay and safe; then I refer them to the agencies that would be the most helpful. Whether it be the Chapel, Mental Health or Behavior Health.”
With the Air Force currently seeing increased suicide rates among members, the first sergeants are at the forefront of the battle to get information and assistance to Airmen so they don’t become a statistic. Not only is it a hot topic for them due to their position, but they volunteered for the career field because they genuinely care about people.
Master Sgt. Travis Merriman, 56th Logistics Readiness Squadron first sergeant, said he tells the Airmen he looks over that, “We were never meant to walk this world alone, we were not born knowing everything so we work together to find an answer or solution. We just have to be able to let our pride down for a second, ask for help and become stronger once we conquer the obstacle.”
While dealing with suicides or any deaths are what many shirts say is the most difficult part of the job, they all agree that there is so much more to it that is positive and they can positively affect change in an Airman.
“Even when I’m advising the commander on his options for administrative actions for an Airman, the first thing I’m thinking about is how I can help that Airman recover and get to be his or her best person again,” said Dinger. “It’s an amazing thing, maybe even the most rewarding thing, to see an Airman bounce back from a bad position to getting back on track.”