Support our mission

The U.S. Air Force is looking for hundreds of senior noncommissioned officers willing to take on some extra responsibility: They’ll even get a diamond for their troubles.

The service has about 1,230 slots around the globe for first sergeants — commonly known to airmen as "first shirts." It relies on volunteers to fill those positions, which are listed as special-duty assignments.

Last May, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Rodney McKinley wrote in a message to the troops that the service was in "dire need" of first sergeants.

The situation has improved since then, with 89 percent of the posts currently filled, according to Chief Master Sgt. Sandra Miller, the service’s first sergeant special duty manager. But the service still needs about 300 new airmen to fill in such positions every year, and Miller said she’d be happier to face a surplus of applicants rather than a shortage.

"It’s a continual issue," she said.

Master Sgt. Christopher King, first sergeant for the 31st Communications Squadron at Aviano Air Base in Italy, has served in his position for more than two years. King said the job involves a lot of work — and responding to situations around the clock — but he’s enjoyed it so much he’s planning on seeking another three-year assignment.

"I love it," he said. "The interaction with people is the best thing."

Despite the struggle to fill the position, the Air Force isn’t involuntarily assigning NCOs to the task — something it has done in the past to fill shortages in other career fields.

First sergeants are responsible for seeing to the needs of all the airmen in their respective units, Miller said. In the Air Force, that role is filled by an E-7 for units with between 75 and 250 airmen, E-8 for units between 251 and 550 and E-9 for those larger than that. NCOs filling those roles bear a diamond in the center of their stripes to show their status.

Units with fewer than 75 airmen often have an NCO fill first sergeant duties along with his or her other duties. Miller said that’s what’s happening in larger units where a first sergeant hasn’t been assigned because of the shortage.

Qualified NCOs attend a three-week course at Gunter Annex near Montgomery, Ala., before filling the assignments, which usually last three years. Some extra pay is involved as with most special-duty assignments. First sergeants often serve in units outside their career fields, which appeals to some and not to others, she said.

"It’s really a good thing for senior NCOs, because they’re stepping outside their boxes and still performing leadership duties," Miller said.

King, a training manager by trade, said he had to learn a lot about the communications field in a hurry in order to do his job.

"You can’t really help (other airmen) without knowing what it is they do or where they’re coming from," he said.

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
twitter Email

Stripes in 7



around the web


Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up