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McChord first sergeants embrace challenging job

Wearing the diamond means taking an active role in Airmen’s lives

A group of McChord Field first sergeants serve Airmen at a recent Unaccompanied Airman’s Feast. /Abner Guzman

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(62nd AW PA) - When asked about his position as the 62nd Maintenance Squadron first sergeant, Senior Master Sgt. Ernesto Rendon replied, "There's no better job."

In the United States Air Force, "first sergeant" is not a grade, but a special duty designation. He or she reports directly to the unit commander as the chief enlisted advisor on matters of enlisted morale, welfare and conduct.

"Our responsibility is to directly support Airmen and their families," said Rendon. "We're involved with things like emergency leave, suicidal threats, financial issues, complaints, family relationship issues, fitness failures and much more."

Specifically, the first sergeant, or "shirt," helps provide the commander with a mission-ready enlisted force and prepares enlisted personnel for deployments. He or she advises the commander on a wide range of topics including Airmen health, discipline, well-being, career progression and professional development. First sergeants are accountable to respond to the needs of unit members 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"Any life change is difficult to manage at first," said Master Sgt. William Baker, 627th Logistics Readiness Squadron first sergeant. "Once you get more comfortable with the role of a first sergeant, then it's a lot easier to manage. Being on-call every minute of every day eventually becomes normal."

As the vital link between the commander, enlisted personnel and support agencies, the first sergeant must ensure the enlisted force understands the commander's policies, goals and objectives.

"Our primary focus is the enlisted population," said Master Sgt. Wayne Gilbert, 8th Airlift Squadron first sergeant. "But that doesn't mean we aren't willing to help an officer. A squadron is a family. We care about everyone."

The position is normally filled by noncommissioned officers with the permanent ranks of master sergeant, senior master sergeant or chief master sergeant. They can be identified by the diamond on the center of their rank insignia.

"Wearing the diamond signifies you've gone through the formal process and attended the First Sergeant Academy course at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama," said Sergeant Rendon.

First sergeants are selected through a combination of application and nomination. Once an NCO applies, the application goes through a wing command chief, to a wing commander, to a major command chief and on to the Military Personnel Center.

"A first sergeant can be assigned to any squadron," said Sergeant Gilbert. "They actually try to assign you to Airmen in a different career field so that you focus on the people rather than get involved and try to contribute to the mission."

Air Force Instruction 36-2113 says first sergeants commit to an initial three-year duty tour. While nearing the completion of their initial commitment, they may elect to serve an additional three year tour.

"The career field functional manager, command chief and commander have to approve an extended duty request," said Sergeant Rendon. "This position is very rewarding, and people tend to enjoy serving as a first sergeant."

According to Sergeant Baker, the job of a first sergeant is completely about improving the health, morale, discipline and welfare of Airmen and their families.

"At the end of the day, it's about helping people," said Sergeant Baker. "Often times, I'll look across my desk and see an Airman in genuine need, whether it's spiritual, emotional or financial. We'll work through the problem and I know when they walk out of my office, they've been helped.That's why I wear the diamond."

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