Military News

Thursday, October 01, 2015

First sergeants fill vital role in service members' lives

by SSgt Shelia deVera
JBER Public Affairs

10/1/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- "My job is people - everyone is my business. I dedicate my time and energy to their needs; their health, morale, discipline and welfare. I grow in strength by strengthening my people. My job is done in faith; my people built faith. The Air Force is my life; I share it with my people. I believe in the Air Force goal - We take care of our own; my job is people - everyone is my business."

The First Sergeant's Creed offers a reminder that first sergeants are the center for all readiness, health, morale, welfare, and quality-of-life issues within an organization.

"The full creed offers a little bit more as an overarching principle," said Master Sgt. Philip Peters, 673d Communications Squadron acting first sergeant. "I prefer the third line, which reads 'I dedicate my time and energy to their needs.' While that line should be true for any supervisor, it is especially important for a first sergeant to remember.

"It's not about you; it's about your Airmen. It can be easy to lose sight of that and the creed can serve as a reminder," Peters added.

Early in his military career, Peters was going through some tough times as a young Airman. In his struggles, he had two distinct experiences with first sergeants.

"I had one who was very engaged and was very tough on me, but who helped me through my difficulties and genuinely wanted to see me improve," the 20-year veteran said. "Conversely, I had another first sergeant whose approach was a lot less helpful. As I got on track and progressed through the ranks, I decided early on that I wanted a chance to try to be like the 'shirt' who taught me so much. So, the week I made master sergeant, I talked to my shirt about what I needed to do to become a first sergeant."

While Peters had two notable experiences that drove him to his current position, Master Sgt. Danny Damons, 673d Comptroller Squadron and Wing Staff Agency first sergeant, said there were several individuals who pushed him to become a first sergeant.

"Marine Sgt. Frank Pearson left a lasting impression on how I wanted to be when he was my Sergeant of the Guard for several years during my time in the Marine Corps," Damons said.

"He wasn't a big-muscle type of guy that yelled and barked, he was tall and skinny, and soft-spoken, but the way he carried himself and interacted with people inspired me to become like him.  If you screwed up he would definitely let you know, but he had a way making you better without all of the extra nonsense."

The drive to listen and interact with people made him think about becoming a first sergeant when Damons witnessed firsthand how the first sergeants in Korea took care of their people.

Having the possibility of becoming a first sergeant in the back of his mind motivated him to look into it further when he was deployed to Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.

"Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin Drake gave me a first sergeant coin for addressing some issues that arose throughout the deployment, and said he was proud of me for standing up for what I believed was right," Damons said.

"So, when I came back [from my deployment], the seed had been planted for me to think more seriously about becoming a first sergeant in the future."

Eight years later, Damons now wears a lozenge. The lozenge, or diamond, on the first sergeant's chevron is a symbol recognized by every Airman, Soldier, and Marine.

They are given distinct privilege, trust, duty and responsibility of taking care of every member in their unit and their families.

When Peters took on the role the first time, he said it was a little intimidating.

"This is not a job you learn to do in the classroom; no job really is, but so much of a first sergeant's job is situational, often reactionary," Peters said. "The scary part when you start out is wondering if you will know how to react to a difficult situation.

"Fortunately, every base has a community of first sergeants who are always there to help each other out.

I always knew I had people around I could lean on, even in the middle of the night."

One day, an Airman came by to see Peters about an issue that needed to be resolved. Peters promised to help the Airman after jotting it down in his notebook with a box to check off when completed.

"At that moment, I realized I had to be careful not to lose the humanity of the tasks," Peters said. "For me, each Airman who came in with an issue was just one more thing.

"For them, it was likely a significant event, something major going on in their life, and therefore deserved the best effort I could muster."

To maintain their sense of self and self-esteem, both first sergeants said they enjoy running.

"To spend time by myself, I just go for a long run," Damons said.

"I enjoy listening to the natural sounds to help me clear my mind, but I do enjoy listening to music at home, in the car, and at work.  Bob Marley is the greatest stress relief for me."

"Learning how to separate your work life from your home life is one of the most important skills first sergeants develop," Peters said.

"Shirts often deal with unpleasant situations, and it can be difficult to leave those things at work. During those years, I developed a love of running. You can do it anywhere, it provides time for reflection, and releases pent up energy.

"Also, being able to go home every night to a family that supported me through six years of late-night calls and lots of time away was huge."

Peters said he would learn new things every day.  Some days he feels successful and on other days he doesn't. On some days, it's paperwork, while on other days it's non-stop action - there are always high and low points as a first sergeant.

"All my greatest highs as first sergeant have come while interacting with and learning about the lives and jobs of the Airmen I worked for," Peters said.

"The lowest moments I had as a shirt always involved children. It can be difficult to personally reconcile the situations you deal with as a first sergeant where a family is struggling in some way and the children suffer because of it."

"I haven't been doing this position that long, but when you can successfully help somebody, that is the high point," Damons said.

"The low point would be when bad things happen to good people. I take on that stuff personally."

Tech. Sgt. Vernon Cunningham, 673d Air Base Wing Public Affairs, said he agrees that a first sergeant puts the needs of the unit personnel above all else.

"Setting up leave for an Airman can take quite a bit of time, given all the routing and signatures," Cunningham said. "But in case of a family emergency or other incident that may adversely affect an Airman's life, first shirts get involved and expedite the process to allow the Airman to take care of personal needs right away and not be distracted by the admin process.

"In my career, I have even worked with a first sergeant who we called in the middle of the night, and he had the Airman on leave and by his family's side by noon the next day."

Peters and Damons said they agreed the job is never easy.

First sergeants work 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the members of their respective units - one thing is certain, they said; a day in the life of a first sergeant is challenging and rewarding.

"My job is people," Peters quoted from the First Sergeant's Creed. "Everyone is my business at the start and the end."

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