They call me 'Shirt'

  • Published
  • By Casey Connell
  • 18th Wing History Office
In the pantheon of NCOs, the first sergeant or "Shirt" can easily lay claim to the status of "hardest working and most versatile" of all sergeants in the U.S. Air Force.

The concept of the first sergeant in the U.S. Armed Services started with General Baron Von Steubon. Von Steubon's background with the Prussian Army made him the ideal candidate for training the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington.

Von Steubon based his first sergeant concept on that of the Prussian Army "feldwebel" or company sergeant. During the early years of our nation's Army, the company officers chose the company first sergeant as the bridge between the enlisted men and their officers as well as the guardian of unit discipline.

Throughout the history of U.S. Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, the "lozenge" or French diamond shape figure in the chevron identified the first sergeant. Authorized in 1847, this distinctive mark, along with the first use of chevrons, set the standard for first sergeant to this day. The Air Force first sergeant has a horizontal lozenge within his insignia whereas the Army and Marine Corps' lozenge is vertical.

Even though the U.S. Air Force has been a separate service for only 65 years, the main job description of the first sergeant carried on from its U.S. Army roots ensuring that the designated rank be responsible for the morale, welfare, and conduct of all the enlisted members in a squadron. They are also key advisors to the squadron commander concerning the enlisted force, which makes the first shirt critical to retention, good order, discipline and mission accomplishment. The Air Force first sergeant is a not a rank, but a special duty held by a senior enlisted advisor of a military unit who reports directly to the commander and this special duty can be held by master sergeants, senior master sergeants or chief master sergeants.

In Bruce D. Callander's article, entitled "First Shirts" prior to the U.S. Air Force becoming a separate service the Air Service, Air Corps, and Army Air Forces, embraced the concept of first sergeant as a formal rank. When the U.S. Air Force became an independent branch in 1947, it broke with tradition and the first sergeant rank became a duty specialty.
It was not until 1954 that General Nathan F. Twining, Air Force Chief of Staff, approved the use of the diamond in the V above the grade insignia as the first sergeant device and introduced the E-8 and E-9 grades to this prestigious position.

Other significant changes in the history of the first shirt was the creation of a separate first sergeant career field in 1961 with the stipulation that males in grades E-7 and above as well as females in E-6 and above could hold the post. Six years later in 1967, March AFB opened what is thought to be the original first sergeant school that included training in advanced management, personnel counseling, communications, and military justice.

Throughout the early 1970's, a top-down effort was made to improve selection, training, and image resulting a recommendation of formal training courses with the Air Force Extension Course Institute developing a career development course in 1972 and the issuance of Air Force Regulation 39-16, "Selection, Training, and Utilization of First Sergeants" in 1973.

Since the introduction of AFR 39-16, newly selected first shirts are required to attend the First Sergeant Academy located at Maxwell-Gunter AFB, where an intense three-week curriculum focuses on subjects such as security forces procedures, human resources intervention, counseling skills and progressive discipline.

According to Callander, it took another 30 years to make the first sergeant job into a separate special duty assignment while adopting a "three plus three" policy making the tour three years with the possibility of a three-year extension.

Even though the first sergeant rank has evolved since the beginning of the U.S. Air Force in 1947, the belief that no unit has ever been successful without the first sergeant is as true today as it was during the beginning of the Continental Army.