First sergeants: More than a shirt
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- There can be times when personnel need more help than their supervisors can offer, so the Air Force provides another outlet.
First sergeants, also known as “shirts,” hold a position granted to master sergeants and above, and promote general health, discipline, and career progression of all assigned personnel and their families.
“We make sure we can get people the things they need, like a little extra cash to fix a vehicle, or help with budgeting,” said Master Sgt. Jose Ramon, the 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron first sergeant.
First shirts put together programs going beyond their normal duty requirements to reach families as well.
“The biggest program we use to help families is Operation Warmheart,” said Master Sgt. Thomas Capaldo, the 35th Force Support Squadron first sergeant. “The program is used for those who need help and do not qualify for the Air Force Aid Society. We will step in and help offset the cost of air fare because sometimes there is a death in the family, and being at Misawa AB, that can be costly on an individual.”
Ramon added in addition to being there for Airmen themselves, they also offer a four-day leadership course, Additional Duty First Sergeant Symposium, for those interested in learning how the first shirts operate and handle various situations.
The class includes informational sessions on counseling, command responsibility, the first sergeant’s perspective on domestic violence, and more.
Capaldo said that although the shirts do other acts of kindness like handing out gift cards for school supplies or popsicles to those working on a hot day, they are sometimes seen as the “bad guys.”
“Sometimes there is a negative opinion toward shirts because a lot of people are not comfortable with confrontation when it comes to correction,” Ramon said. “So when the first sergeant has to be direct with an individual, they take it in the wrong way. The reality is, it has always been to help somebody and in order to start fixing something, we have to first identify the problem.”
Ramon explained an instance where correction from a shirt is sometimes necessary to better an Airman.
“There was an Airman at my last base who was a superstar Airman, but she started hanging out with the wrong people and ended up getting a DUI,” recalled Ramon.
He added it took a long time to get her to trust people, but they eventually broke down the wall she put up. The shirts started talking more and eventually it led to them helping her and her family.
Ramon said even he had hard times early in his career and his shirt took the time to look out for him, which inspired him to take up the position himself.
“You get to see somebody when they are broken, then help them pick themselves up,” said Ramon. “Afterward you get to see them pick other people up. That is probably the best part of being a shirt.”
Capaldo said at the end of the day their role is to help Airmen and families, so they can be prepared to execute the mission. As with many leaders across the base, their view is that if units take care of their people, their people will take care of the mission.
“We are not always involved with people on the microscopic level,” said Ramon. “But we are definitely there to make sure they are OK and they are in the right mindset to perform their job.”