Holding a special duty that requires knowing the pulse of the unit and how to take care of Airmen through good times and stressful times takes a unique type of person.
First Sergeants, also known as Shirts, are those unique people who dedicate themselves to the welfare of their Airmen.
Even after going through the mandatory professional development course to be a First Sergeant, these individuals are continuously working to improve themselves to meet the needs of their units. The Reserve Citizen Airmen of the 944th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., provided an avenue to do just that.
The 944th First Sergeants Council held its first-ever Southwest Regional First Sergeants Symposium at Luke AFB, April 26-30.
“When we found out it was going to be a requirement for our counsel to host the symposium the bar was really high and we wanted to live up to that because the functional was going to be watching and overseeing it as it was our first and we felt like we are representing the Air Force Reserve,” said Master Sgt. Natalie Semensow, 944th Security Forces Squadron First Sergeant and council vice president.
Semensow kept in constant communication with the Air Force Reserve Command First Sergeant Functional Manager, Chief Master Sgt. Travon Dennis, to understand the expectation he desired them to meet.
“My goal set when we first started talking about this symposium together was to ensure that our junior to senior First Sergeants leveled up,” Dennis said. “We talked about building and developing resilient leaders but it can’t just be lip service; they need touch points to help them succeed.
The council was aware of the complex curriculum they had to put together and planned on exceeding it using their academy knowledge as a foundation to build from.
“Our goal was two pronged,” Semensow said. “Number one was to empower First Sergeants who already had the diamond; to give them additional resources, mentorship, team exercises and support. The second prong was to empower people who are interested in becoming First Sergeants. They got the experience to be mentored by us, the council members, as well as get the curriculum which is fundamental plus advanced.”
In order to complete all of their objectives they broke down each day into themes.
“Each day was a different mission, in order they were: inspire, empower, challenge, give back, and capstone,” Semensow said. “This helped us focus, divide, and concur the goals from these topics and really communicate the intent of being a First Sergeant”
During the week the Airmen, which included First Sergeants from four different reserve bases and active-duty First Sergeants from the 56th Fighter Wing, were able to connect with each other as well as those who don’t yet wear the diamond.
“Fostering the Total Force Initiative and having the undershirts and aspiring shirts be a part of the symposium sets them up for success 100 percent,” Dennis said. “We had First Sergeants in the room as mentors and advisors so now we have them exposed and that eases some of the tension about the role and makes them more confident in their ability to serve.”
The attendees heard from different speakers about their role in the Air Force Mission and how they can better facilitate the needs of the Airmen within their units. The speakers came from far and wide to include the Pentagon, the Marine Corp and Army, and the one and only “Diamond One,” Air Force First Sergeant Special Duty Manager Chief Master Sgt. Mike Perry Jr.
“I have a great relationship with Chief Perry so when I told him about what we were doing he gave me his commitment that he would be here,” Dennis said.
Perry talked about the future of the First Sergeants and how he and his counterparts are aware of the struggles they face and are taking action to help lessen it as well as how they should be evolving to meet the needs of their units.
“The way we look right now as First Sergeants will not look the same in five years,” Perry said. “As we move toward building multi-capable Airmen, we have to become multi-capable First Sergeants. Having these symposiums helps build connections within the force to be better and serve better. What I hope they take away from events like this is goodness.”
Perry also shared his personal struggle he had at the beginning of his career and how it took his leadership supporting him behind the scenes that changed his career path.
He explained that while at his first duty station he received a DUI and was demoted, essentially ending his career before it started.
“At the time in my home state of Louisiana, it was legal to drink alcohol at 18 so culture told me I could have a drink,” Perry said. “I went to a going-away party and had a few sips of a peach wine cooler—don’t hate they were cool back then. We were about to leave and my friend was really drunk so I had to drive. As we were riding down the street there was a car in the middle of the road without its lights on and I rear-ended them. My blood alcohol level was so low I could have taken couch syrup and got a higher result, but of course I was underage so I got a DUI.”
He was one month from being 21 and a month and a half from putting on Senior Airman but was advised that he would be made an example of which was the reason for the demotion. He was accepting his fate but was given a challenge by his father to either come home and give up or prove he could perform like a Senior Airman and that he deserved to be in the military. When he went to his next duty station he took the second choice and behind the scenes his supervisor and First Sergeant asked questions and took notice of his dedication to duty.
“We were at a commander’s call and they called me up on stage,” Perry said. “I had no idea that they were giving me my stripes back.”
Perry went on the say that First Sergeants are the eyes and ears for their commanders and need to lead the way and be that example for the Airmen to follow. He challenged them to get to know their Airmen and learn about the gray area instead of accepting the black and white of situations. He went on to encourage them to know what the struggles are that they face personally and professionally. That way they can educate themselves on resources and solutions and be ready to step in and be a part of that conversation on behalf of the commander and the Airmen.
The attendees were not aware that Diamond One would be attending the symposium and were thrilled to be in the same room as him.
“To be an undershirt, aspiring shirt, or even a First Sergeant meeting Diamond One is a big deal,” Dennis said. “I think for some it was mind-blowing to see how Diamond One cares about what we do here on the other side of the country to come in and take part. It showed them the value of how important their roles are for the health of our Air Force.”
For one undershirt, this symposium was enlightening and career changing.
“I definitely want to be a diamond wearing First Sergeant and any opportunity for professional development I attend because there is a lot of value in it,” said Master Sgt. Laura Kain, 944th Command Post and undershirt. “Being in the symposium gave me a chance to learn, network, and be involved and part of the team. It’s all about exposure and getting a lot of it to grow.”
The part of the symposium that truly made her solidify her intentions was hearing Diamond One speak.
“It was super incredible to be in the room with Diamond One,” Kain said. “Most of the Air Force doesn’t get an opportunity like this any time in their career. It was also really neat to hear that he had points where he paused, had a hard time, and it wasn’t a clear path for him. I don’t think my path was very clear either but when I became an undershirt I was in a place where I didn’t know what value I could continue to bring to the Air Force. I don’t know what more I can give and I want to find it out. To hear how he could have lost his way and how he had mentors look out for him and guide him behind the scenes was very reassuring.”
The symposium exceeded the expectations of the council and their actions did not go unnoticed.
“I thought the symposium truly phenomenal and the local team has provided a great blueprint, so we are going to continue this annually,” Dennis said. “We are building connections and setting a foundation of growth using the tools and resources we learn in symposiums like this.”
Dennis wants these Airmen to understand that they play a larger role within the Air Force.
“First Sergeants are not just crisis managers, we are strategically placed within the leadership triad for a reason,” Dennis said. “We are senior non-commissioned officers and we need these diamond wearers to be as lethal in thought as they are providing and advising on all matters because our primary job is to ensure and support a mission-ready force.”