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NEWS | Nov. 10, 2010

First Shirts … machine or human?

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jennifer R. Hudson Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

A First Sergeant is known to be well respected; a person with a lot of authority, a voice who has the commander's ear and holds a unique position of leadership within the senior NCO corps in the Air Force. And while there are various "hats" the leaders must wear, these "First Shirts" have also been known to be the regulation hammers of their units - a machine-ran being.

"It doesn't matter where my First Sergeant is, he can spot an Airman a quarter of a mile away and will literally go out of his way to correct that Airman's uniform discrepancy," said Airman 1st Class Michael Thorndike, who is the information assurance accountant for the 628th Communications Squadron at Joint Base Charleston-Air Base. "He is tough when it comes to uniform regulations, but he isn't wrong, he is just going with what the instructions state."

These robotic men and women tend to have human-like features--smiling, laughing, caring and even being there when you need a shoulder to lean on. They require little maintenance, and hardly ever need food. Seriously? These highly respected men and women are not a bunch of walking zombie robots; in fact many of them have struggled through trial and error, climbing through the ranks just like any other Airman.

While some First Shirts are hard on young Airmen, barking orders to fix their uniforms or other discrepancies, that is their job. They are also there to be an advocate, to listen and fix problems, or at the very least, intervene at the lowest level possible.

"My First Shirt is by far the best that I have ever had since my enlistment, and while that may not be very many, I know that if I go to my First Shirt, he will listen to whatever problems I may be having and help if he can," said A1C Thorndike.

The influential senior NCO who Airman Thorndike speaks so highly of is Master Sgt. Steven Hart. A 16-year veteran who works at the 628 CS at JB CHS-AB, shares his experiences as he struggled through the ranks, his insight of what First Shirts are all about and concerns he faces daily. He shares these experiences to remind Airmen that while a First Shirt may be calling them to their office and giving them a slight heart or anxiety attack, they are in fact ... human. They have emotions and are there for their Airmen in more ways than one.

"I was no model Airman by any stretch of the imagination, but I wouldn't say I struggled," said Sergeant Hart. "I was just going to get out after my first two years in.

"I didn't really assimilate to the culture of the Air Force. I liked being around people that were like me, but I didn't like the over-achievers or a lot of the politics that I thought at the time was part of the everyday life of an Airman," he continued.

"What really changed my mind from getting out of the Air Force was the fact that I was assigned to the right base and with the right people who helped me and that is really when I started to refocus and get serious with my career," he said.

Hard work and determination set the tone for Sergeant Hart as he progressed through the ranks and put forth his best effort, challenging himself every step of the way.
It wasn't easy getting to that mind frame, he said.

"I started out my career by just doing the minimum, just barely getting by. I was never in any kind of trouble, but I wasn't doing any of those extra things to make me stand out or help my career progress anywhere," he said. "But once I got serious, it all came a little bit easier for me.

"I've had some pretty terrible supervisors in my time, which is why I chose to become a First Sergeant. Ultimately, I wanted to make a difference, have an effect on those individuals and hold people accountable for their actions.

"I started thinking about being a First Sergeant when my old unit's First Sergeant changed duty stations. They asked me to fill the position because they knew I wanted to be one, so I ended up taking the position for about eight months.

"In those eight months, I had tons of craziness," he exclaimed. "Four hundred people are just a lot of people to take care of. The unit was not bad, but that old adage about 10 percent causing 90 percent of the problems was true. It seems like the 10 percent would literally try to get into trouble.

"It was a whirlwind for the first couple of months, I don't even remember my first day, but I remember that it was pretty constant. I would get calls throughout the weekend telling me about what one of my Airmen did and then there would be tons of paperwork to follow. My desk was covered with paperwork and I started to get a standing rapport with the legal department.

"That was my first experience as a First Shirt, and after all of that I can honestly say I almost didn't submit my package, it was just too much to handle at times," Sergeant Hart continued.

"I was very overwhelmed at my first unit as a First Shirt. It was just constant, because you never know what a day will bring, it's always changing."

He went on to explain that there are two types of First Shirts, reactive and proactive. Sometimes a First Shirt is not afforded the opportunity to get out and get to know their Airmen, especially if the unit is extremely large.

"A lot of First Sergeants have a bad rap because they are constantly dealing with negative stuff instead of being able to show the positive side because that's all they get," he explained. "They don't get a lot of time to dwell on the positive side.

"I was really excited to come here as the First Sergeant for this unit, especially when I found out how big it is," he said. "It's just the right size to allow me to do both sides of the job.

"I think that my job is quite possibly the best job to have in the Air Force; I get to deal with Airmen everyday and interact with them," he said laughing. "I really enjoy that aspect of my job--it's not always doom and gloom. I personally enjoy getting out there and learning about each individual Airman, personally or professionally, as well as their families.

Sergeant Hart went on to explain that First Shirts do not have the authority to officially punish, such as administering Article 15, but they do have other tools in which they can utilize to correct deficiencies. Often times a good one-way discussion can help redirect that Airman to put them on the right path.

""I think a lot of Airmen believe the First Shirt is just out there to get them, and I used to think that as well, but that isn't the case at all," he explained.

Listening to an Airman and being sympathetic or empathizing is good in some cases, but Sergeant Hart said he tends to empathize to a point that it can almost become burdensome.

"My biggest concern in my job is that I don't ever want someone to take their own life. That's what keeps me up at night and is my biggest fear, because you don't know what people think," he said. "I think that would be the most difficult thing to deal with, by far, just from every stand point. I pray that I never have to deal with that one. That or someone's child getting hurt, I wouldn't wish that on anyone because I know how much I love my kids."

One of the best piece of advice Sergeant Hart said he could give was for Airmen to address small issues before they get out of control--to a point where no First Shirt is in a position to help.

"Don't be intimidated. I know my policy, and I'm sure most First Sergeants will share my policy, but I'd much rather have you tell me what's going on when it's small than get told by somebody else when it's huge. We can help when problems are small, but when it's too big it gets out of our hands," he said.

"From Airmen to officers, we all have one major thing in common, everyone tries to do the best they can with what they have--we are human and no one is powerless.

"Whether you are an Airman or chief, you can have an effect on a lot of people. I guess people don't realize that one decision can have a huge effect upon someone's life and you don't really even realize it. I would say Airmen think they are powerless, but I don't think that for a second, they have a lot of power. Airmen are not pawns of a chess game; they have a much more important position than they think," Sergeant Hart concluded.