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Air Force expected to start selecting first sergeants

Jun. 6, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Master Sgt. Mauree Powell, First Sergeant Academy instructor, coaches a master sergeant in the course at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in this March 2009 photo. Only master sergeants can attend the academy, but one first shirt says it should be opened up to senior master sergeants.
Master Sgt. Mauree Powell, First Sergeant Academy instructor, coaches a master sergeant in the course at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in this March 2009 photo. Only master sergeants can attend the academy, but one first shirt says it should be opened up to senior master sergeants. (Donna L. Burnett / Air Force)
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Master Sgt. Mauree Powell, First Sergeant Academy instructor, coaches a master sergeant in the course at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in this March 2009 photo. Only master sergeants can attend the academy, but one first shirt says it should be opened up to senior master sergeants. (Donna L. Burnett / Air Force)


Top performing NCOs may soon be ordered to spend three years as a first sergeant, the 24/7 job that every command needs but is one of the toughest to fill with volunteers.

But being selected could be a sweet deal for noncommissioned officers looking to make the highest enlisted ranks, despite the perception that it’s harder to advance as a first shirt.

That perception is only partly true. While competition is tough while master sergeants are on first shirt duty, they are twice as likely to retire at the highest enlisted paygrade. And as they advance through the ranks, their chances of promotion to senior master sergeant are far better than the averages for all specialties.

For example, of 300 former first sergeants competing for promotion to senior master sergeant over the past five years, nearly 64 percent were selected, compared with an overall promotion rate of 10.6 percent. At the same time, 93 of 257 senior master sergeants made chief master sergeant — a promotion rate of 36 percent, compared with an overall promotion rate of almost 22 percent.

The service is leaning toward selecting first sergeants from its top performing noncommissioned officers, said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody. A final decision is expected in June.

“This is the direction we’re going and we just have some staffing to do,” Cody told Air Force Times. “We still have some pretty significant stakeholders that are part of the process of how we would execute this working through some details. We still have to make sure that our personnel system is prepared to support it, that our [Major Commands] are ready to receive the process.”

Working out the logistics is expected to take another month, he said. Afterward, the Air Force would ask for nominations for first sergeants twice a year. A start date has not been set. First sergeants would continue to serve for three years with the option to extend for another three.

“We want them actually to go do that job, do it for a few years and then go back and take all that experience back out into the broader Air Force,” Cody said.

Being a first sergeant won’t give you any additional points toward promotion, but it will yield practical experience that will help in the long run, he said. The move is part of a review of all special duties, for which the Air Force has periodically not had enough volunteers.

There are no plans to boost the $150 per month in special pay or offer any new incentives to airmen selected to be first sergeants.

Longer to move up

The Air Force is suffering a shortage of first sergeants, partially because its old system for tracking first sergeants did not provide an accurate count of how many the service needed and also because undermanned Air Force Specialty Codes limit how many airmen can volunteer for special duties, said Chief Master Sgt. Sandra Pfeffer, first sergeant special duty manager.

Traditionally, airmen have been hesitant to volunteer to serve as first sergeants because of the perception their career will take a hit. Those fears are not unfounded: Promotion data show that first sergeants get promoted to senior master sergeant at or above the Air Force average, but it takes master sergeants longer to move up.

In 2013, first sergeants were promoted to senior master sergeant at an average of 10.65 percent, which is the same as the Air Force average, according to statistics provided by the Air Force. But the first sergeants selected for promotion had an average time in grade of 5.13 years, compared with the Air Force average of 4.02 years.

One reason first sergeants may take longer to make senior master sergeant is the high caliber of airmen in the first sergeant specialty competing against each other for promotion, said Pfeffer, a first sergeant herself.

In other AFSCs, airmen may be promoted faster because the competition is less stiff, Pfeffer said. A portion of the airmen won’t be promotable because they don’t have their Community College of the Air Force degree, a senior rater endorsement or they have less than sterling records.

“If you look at all of our first sergeants, a little over 1,200 in the active-duty population, every one of them is competitive for a promotion: They all have their CCAF; they all have the senior rater endorsements; the majority of them have firewall 5s; they’ve gotten decorations,” she said. “If everybody is eligible, what are those deciding factors really going to be? Your test, and it’s going to be your time in service, time in grade — those little bit of differences in the points will be a big factor in it.”

Another reason first sergeants may take longer to make senior master sergeant is that many of them don’t become test eligible until they’ve worn the first shirt’s diamond for a year or two, she said.

“So the first time they’re testing, it’s almost at their three-year point as a first sergeant,” Pfeffer said. “Yes, people do get promoted their first time, but usually it takes more than the first time testing for master sergeant and by the time that happens, they’re back to their primary AFSC.”

However, master sergeants nearing the end of their time in the Air Force may not have enough time to go back to their career field, said Laurel Duncil, who retired in 2013 as a first sergeant at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. They may want to make rank before retiring.

“I think one way to alleviate that problem is to allow senior master sergeants to go to the First Sergeant Academy and become first sergeants — because they’ve already made senior and for some people, that’s as far as they want to go so they’d be happy to do three years and finish out like that,” Duncil said.

Right now, only master sergeants can go to the First Sergeant Academy.

Duncil wanted to finish her career in the Air Force as a first sergeant. She was up for promotion to senior master sergeant twice but did not get selected. Like other first sergeants, she did it because she loved the job, not because she wanted to get promoted.

“Traditionally, it’s been harder to make rank while you’re a first sergeant because you’re competing against the best of the best,” Duncil said. “I’ve seen guys who only do it for three years and then get out, I’ve seen guys that extend — and very few of them make rank while they’re still an actual first sergeant.”

It may take longer for first sergeants to get promoted to senior master sergeant, but that promotion does come, said Chief Master Sergeant Michael J. Warner, command chief for Air Force Materiel Command.

“The bottom line is you can get promoted to a senior and to a chief as a first sergeant, just like any other career field ... but it’s a known that it can take a little longer to make senior master sergeant as a diamond-wearer,” Warner said.

Warner has served as a first sergeant nine times — which no longer became possible when the first sergeant AFSC became a special duty in October 2002. As a first shirt, he was promoted to senior master sergeant on his second try, showing it is possible to make rank while wearing a diamond.

When he was a shirt, master sergeants could serve as first sergeants for seven or eight years, so airmen believed promotion boards would only select first sergeants who had several years of experience, Warner said.

“Today’s Air Force, really the sweet spot for making senior master sergeant is that three years as a shirt — that’s right when you’re coming out,” he said. “You’re very promotable at that point.”

Promotion data bears that out. In 2012, the promotion rate for master sergeants who returned to their career field after serving as first sergeant was 65.1 percent, compared with average promotion rate for all AFSCs of 13.78 percent, according to statistics provided by the Air Force.

'A lot of sacrifice'

First sergeants are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week when airmen get busted for drunken driving, have a family emergency, or need one person to talk to who won’t get them in trouble with their family or the law.

The job isn’t for everyone, said Master Sgt. Dawn Aubuchon, who spent more than a year as a fill-in first sergeant for two squadrons.

“It takes a special kind of person to be a first sergeant,” she said. “I truly believe you have to love what you’re doing or you won’t be successful because it requires a lot of sacrifice.”

Aubuchon, who is stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy, said she would burn through her gas ration before the end of the month because she would escort airmen to appointments, respond to drunk driving and domestic disturbances, visit airmen’s children and be called if airmen tried to harm themselves.

While she had to work long hours, she enjoyed being able to have a profound effect on airmen and their families, Aubuchon said.

“I always encourage the airmen that I have under me, my subordinates, and other people, to apply for first sergeant duty — if I can see that talent in them, if I can see that level of sacrifice that they would be willing to give and to actually care about their people,” she said.

For Bruce Perkins, the hardest part of being a first sergeant was dealing with deaths, especially suicide. He had four suicides during his tenure as a first sergeant.

“I cried like a baby the first time,” said Perkins, who retired in 2012 as senior master sergeant. “I’d only been a first sergeant for six months when the first one happened.”

The airman had been disciplined for giving alcohol to underage airmen, Perkins said. He wouldn’t stop, so he was given his discharge papers. He killed himself within 10 days of leaving the Air Force.

“It devastated me because I had done everything I could to save this kid — everything,” he said.

Despite the dark times Perkins stayed a first sergeant for nine years because he loved the job.

“There’s no better job in the Air Force, there really isn’t,” he said. “When I was a staff sergeant, my first sergeant helped one of my airmen. He was going through some marriage issues and some infidelity issues, and I saw what my first sergeant did for this kid, and, from that day on, I knew when I made master I wanted to become a first sergeant — he kept this airman in the Air Force.”

Recruiting reluctant NCOs

Some master sergeants may worry that being a first sergeant would be too much for them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do the job, said retired Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Jim Binnicker.

“Maybe they have low self-esteem; maybe they think the job is too tough for them; maybe they hold first sergeants in high regard and don’t see themselves doing that,” Binnicker said. “So it takes someone, a command chief or another chief, a commander, to say, ‘I want you to do this; I think you would make a great first sergeant; I know you can do it.’ ”

That’s exactly what Binnicker did when he was the senior enlisted adviser for the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. His wing commander wasn’t satisfied with the first sergeants being sent to him so he told Binnicker to “fix it.”

Binnicker recruited master sergeants he believed were up to the job and told them he wanted them to be first sergeants.

Some airmen need to be persuaded they are more capable than they think they are, and that’s a big part of leadership, he said.

“It’s just molding them in the right form and pushing them in the right direction,” Binnicker said.

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