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First sergeants: Airmen first, mission second

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Master Sgt. Gerald Morey, 561st Network Operations Squadron first sergeant, has worked as a first sergeant for two years at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. His responsibilities include taking care of and providing resources for Airmen and their families assigned to his unit. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Instead of waiting for a signal to appear in the sky, first sergeants at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, are just one text or phone call away from helping their Airmen.

On-call 24/7, first sergeants, whether diamond or additional, are responsible for the well-being of every Airman or civilian in their assigned unit, including their families. They also provide resources and assist the wing commander with decisions regarding Airmen.

Instead of focusing primarily on the Air Force Mission, first sergeants are focused on personnel.

“As a first sergeant, you know everything that’s going on in the unit,” said Master Sgt. Gerald Morey, 561st Network Operations Squadron first sergeant. “It’s more people business, so you’re really in the know of what’s going on.”

Though discipline is what comes to many Airmen’s minds when they think of first sergeants, Morey and other first sergeants would say otherwise. Out of 30 Airmen or civilians who may visit Master Sgt. John Szewczyk, 21st Force Support Squadron first sergeant, in one day, none are there because they’re in trouble, he said.

“Ninety percent of our job is talking to people when they’re going through deaths in the family, family situations or financial hardships,” said Szewczyk, who is responsible for 100 enlisted Airmen and 500 civilians in his unit. “Usually the 30 Airmen are here because they need assistance. They don’t know where to turn next.”

“Because I’m outside the chain of command, Airmen don’t have to go through leadership to see me. I’m just one helping resource they can come and talk to, even if it is just to talk to someone — I can be a mentor to them personally or professionally.”

Whether checking on Airmen with a visit to a unit or an Airman seeks out an individual meeting, first sergeants know that if they don’t have the answer, they can point Airmen and their families to the right resource, such as the 21st Force Support Squadron.

“For example, if the husband is deployed and the family didn’t get any money or they didn’t get paid, something happened with the paycheck — the spouse can come to the first sergeant,” Morey said. “We could go to Finance and get those questions answered. Or if their ID card expired, we could go to Military Personnel Flight and help with the process without it being a long headache.”

Through Operation Warm Heart, which helps Airmen in emergencies like when a family member passes away and the Airman cannot afford a plane ticket, first sergeants can facilitate monetary donations to those in need.

“Any type of tragic or catastrophic thing that happens, a fire, or whatever the case may be, if we have it we’ll give it to them,” Morey said.

To help build morale within the unit, first sergeants also set up community service days for their Airmen and families.

While the majority of first sergeants’ responsibilities revolve around Airmen or civilians in their unit, Morey knows how much dedication it takes to be good at his job, to keep track of how his Airmen are doing and to be ready for any situation.

“I might be having dinner with my family, it may be the first time in a month I was able to sit down for us to go out and then just as the food comes, you get that phone call,” Morey said. “I have to tell my family, ‘Hey I have to go.’ That right there a lot of people don’t see.”

It is necessary for first sergeants to take care of themselves as much as it is to take care of their Airmen, said Morey. Though his unit is smaller, Master Sgt. Nathan McDonald, Joint Force Space Component Command Missile Warning Center Plans and Operations section chief and additional first sergeant at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colorado, had to learn how to hold together his unit after the death of two service members.

“It’s not an easy thing to handle, dealing with a death,” McDonald said. “Sometimes you have to control your feelings enough to make sure you’re taking care of the unit. Sometimes it’s easier than others depending on the situation.”

To seek out advice and to support one another, first sergeants are required to meet every week at Peterson AFB for the first sergeant council meeting, which is run by the command chief. Being an effective full-time or additional first sergeant means using the council meeting and others for support, according to Morey.

“This job is one of the most unique positions and it’s not a job for everybody,” said Morey. “If you don’t have a person who’s open and is the voice for that unit, it could really hurt the unit. Your job is to keep morale up. … Overall you have to be approachable and keep the unit running.”