Live the diamond life: be a first sergeant

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

In the Air Force, there exists a number of special duty positions.

The military training instructor banging on the door while you were fumbling through the proper entry control procedures: special duty.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass promoting an Air Force-wide culture of diversity and respect through "Coffee Talks" and base visits: special duty.

That recruiter who facilitated your journey from civilian to trainee to Airman: special duty.

There is one obvious similarity in special duties; they are unique leadership opportunities and the first sergeant special duty is no different, and the opportunity to be one is alive and well in the 403rd Wing.

Most, if not all, Airmen are familiar with a thing called “the little brown book.” The little brown book, also known as Air Force Instruction 36-2618 “The Enlisted Force Structure,” offers in-depth descriptions for what each rank and special duty is responsible for.

The book describes a first sergeant as someone who provides a dedicated focal point for all readiness, health, morale, welfare, and quality of life issues within their organization.

“The first sergeant is a time-honored special duty position,” said Chief Master Sgt. Amanda J. Stift, command chief for the 403rd Wing here. “They are critical to the execution of the unit’s mission through interaction, support and management of our Airmen and their families, and that support occurs 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.”

Master Sgt. Dionni Henderson, first sergeant for the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, said the little brown book hits the nail on the head, but at the same time, it is hard to tie down the parameters of what a first sergeant does.

Henderson’s journey to this point started in 1994 when he joined the Air Force as a pharmacy technician, and he served on active duty for 12 years. While serving on active duty, Henderson not only worked hard for his country, he also worked hard towards his own development, graduating with a master’s degree in April 2005.

Months later, Hurricane Katrina hit, and Henderson, who was based at Keesler at the time, described it as a significant moment being sheltered in the hospital and doing his best to keep taking care of patients as the base was all but decimated.

After those 12 years, he still wanted to serve, so a mere 48 hours after his active duty contract was up, the in-house Reserve recruiter had him signed up as a member of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California. He joined the 403rd Aeromedical Staging Squadron here a year or so later, where, on drill weekends, he first continued his work as a pharmacy technician before moving into the onboarding management world.

Henderson then was picked up as a Guard-Reserve liaison with Keesler’s active duty unit, the 81st Training Wing.

“What we would do is, for every Guard or Reserve tech school student coming through, we made sure they were taken care of, so all they had to do was worry about their job training,” said Henderson. “We would worry about everything else for them.”

After a couple years in that position, Henderson returned to the 403rd ASTS, where he became the unit’s career advisor.

By then, Henderson had more than proven that he was capable of guiding Airmen in whatever capacity the Air Force asked him to, so when the opportunity arose for him to become a first sergeant and sew the diamond on, he did not hesitate and he has not regretted the challenge.

“You never stop learning or developing as a person and as a reservist,” he said of the experience. “It’s all about picking up the unit, picking up the people and pressing on.”

Henderson described a situation early in his Air Force career involving the unique role a first sergeant plays.

“Me and my girlfriend at the time were having a disagreement and my first shirt had to step in and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” said Henderson. “He reminded me of the career I had to lose and helped that situation. It’s a testament to the fact that there is an (Air Force Instruction) that tells you what you do, but mostly you figure it out as you go.”

Henderson said being a first sergeant here in the is a little different from active duty, as, generally, active duty “shirts” have more Airmen under their wing, so he enjoys the personal aspect in the Reserve.  

The biggest hurdle is keeping up with Airmen when he may only see them that one weekend a month.

“What I do is I try to send ‘Hey, how are you?’ or ‘How’s the baby?’ texts throughout the month,” he said. “I also try to be there for sign in and sign out during the unit training assemblies to observe and get a feel for the Airmen and make sure everyone is doing okay and knows I’m here if they need me.”

Henderson’s best advice for someone wanting to become a first sergeant is to know and use all the resources available. If an Airman has a problem, he said, he may not know the answer, but he knows how to use his resources to take care of that Airman.

As he comes up on his final year of the special duty, Henderson has no regrets.

“I have laughed more than I have cried,” he said. “But even so, tears refresh you. If anyone is interested, I would say it is rewarding. You might be put into uncomfortable situations but that’s when that leadership piece kicks in and it all becomes worth it.”

For any master sergeant or promotion elegible technical sergeant interested in a rewarding experience like Henderson’s, opportunities await.

“Currently, the wing has three first sergeant openings on the Reserve Management Vacancy System for 403rd Security Forces Squadron, 815th Airlift Squadron, and the 403rd ASTS,” said Stift. “I highly encourage those eligible to apply, as it is very often those who served as first sergeants that are sought after when advancement opportunities arise.”