Keeping the Pack Strong: Your First Sergeant Team
By Staff Sgt. Anthony Hetlage, 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 12, 2019
KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series designed to highlight helping agencies and resiliency at Kunsan Air Base.
U.S. Air Force first sergeants, often called “shirts,” are senior non-commissioned officers in a special duty outside of their designated career fields. This role gives them the responsibility of caring for more than 538,000 active duty, guard and reserve Airmen across the globe.
The rank of first sergeant was originally created by the U.S. Army in 1781. Now, more than 200 years later, Air Force first sergeants serve as a beacon in their organization for Airmen of all ranks to seek when it comes to issues regarding health, morale, welfare, quality-of-life and more. At the 8th Fighter Wing, first sergeants are leaned on even more as most Airmen do not have their family or friends nearby to rely on as their support network.
“We are charged with maintaining a mission ready force; resiliency and suicide prevention are two of our primary focuses as first sergeants,” said Master Sgt. James Drybola, 8th Communications Squadron first sergeant. “Shirts have to be personally connected with the men and women in the unit. The commander relies on us to ensure Airmen in the unit are mentally, physically and spiritually ready to execute the mission.”
The position of first sergeant places a senior NCO in a completely new setting, surrounded by Airmen from different squadrons and career fields than their own.
“Not being from the same career field allows a first sergeant to provide a unique perspective to leadership, while also remaining focused on taking care of the people without getting bogged down in the unit’s operational aspects,” said Senior Master Sgt. Leonard Myers, 80th Aircraft Maintenance Unit first sergeant. “Now my time is solely dedicated to taking care of Airmen.”
Although first sergeants work within the unit, they do not have a chain of command and instead work directly with the unit’s commander. This allows Airmen the opportunity to seek help if they feel uncomfortable using their direct supervisor and chain of command.
“I firmly believe the first sergeant is there to supplement, coach, teach, and intervene when necessary to ensure our Airmen are taken care of as best as possible,” said Myers. “With the large numbers of Airmen we oversee, it is invaluable to have supervision our Airmen trust and feel comfortable going to for help and advice. But my door is always open for Airmen, if needed.”
First sergeants are on call at all times and stand ready to help their Airmen work through anything they might be dealing with, whether it’s on or off-duty.
“Shirts are the unit’s focal point when crisis strikes. Often times, we see our Airmen at their absolute worst moments, whether they are dealing with professional adversity or personal hardship,” said Drybola.
Drybola recounted an experience where he and a few of his co-workers helped a veteran during a suicidal situation at a previous duty station.
“A retired Air Force member of our unit called out over social media with a very dark post. He apologized to his family for failing them and said his goodbyes,” said Drybola. “Three of us began calling the last phone number we had for him with no luck. Through some other resources, we found out the town he lived in and reached out to the local police department to perform a welfare check.”
The policemen arrived to the veteran’s house just in time to help him as they found him sitting in his living room with a loaded handgun on his coffee table.
“You are never alone. While I never claim to understand how hardships effect each individual, no one is immune. It’s okay to put yourself out there, it’s okay to be vulnerable to your own emotions,” said Drybola. “A first sergeant’s proudest moment is when we are able to wrap our arms around a member while we help navigate them through their darkest times.”
First sergeants can be the first stop for help in moments of crisis or hardship. Do not be afraid to reach out to your first sergeant to seek the support you or your wingman may need.