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The business of people: Life as a first sergeant

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Dillon Johnston
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Dedication is defined as a feeling of very strong support for or loyalty to someone or something, or the quality or state of being dedicated to a person, group, cause, etc.

It is this definition which embodies the attitude of a first sergeant. Colloquially called a shirt or first shirt, unwavering loyalty to the individuals in their particular group or squadron is what drives them, and they make people their business.

For Master Sgt. Jason Whitehead, 341st Security Forces Squadron first sergeant, this rings especially true.

"Your very first duty is to serve the people," Whitehead said. "You are there to take care of the people, take care of their needs, and you are also there to ensure the good order and discipline of the unit and make sure people are treated fairly.

"If it involves people, that's why you're there," he added.

A relatively new first sergeant, Whitehead was thrust headfirst into the world of how to manage people in a massive squadron. At just shy of a year into his four year first sergeant commitment, he has learned a huge amount in a short period of time. The culture shock from being in munitions for 14 years and switching to the defender world was something the master sergeant had to wrap his head around.

"To say the least, (it took some getting used to)," Whitehead laughed. "To be a brand new first sergeant and entering into security forces, it was very eye opening as far as the duties of a first sergeant. But I embraced it and to me, in my opinion, if you're going to learn the job, and you're going to be a well-rounded person to better suit the people you are working for. What better way than to be in a security forces unit?"

The squadron, with its size and tempo, is a daunting environment to learn such a big job in.

"It's like drinking from a fire hydrant," the shirt said. "You either drink it or you get blown out of the way."

One of the ways Whitehead manages to drink from the proverbial fire hydrant is by getting to know not only the Airmen in the squadron, but to get intimately familiar with their jobs.

"It is phenomenal for me, personally, to be able to go out in the atmosphere and environment of where my people are," he said. "That's what takes me to the front gates; it's an honest stress relief - it's one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable parts of the job for me to go be where my people are and do what it is they're doing. It helps me understand their job better, so when they have an issue or a problem at home or a job related stress, if I'm out there doing it and visiting them in their environment on their post, I understand the true facets of what it is they're doing."

This sense of understanding and the ability to be in their shoes allows Whitehead to be a more effective mentor and leader within the squadron. Being able to know each Airman and their personalities is an important element of a shirt's skillset.

One of his favorite ways to keep in touch with the Airmen in the squadron is through informal visits to their posts.

"When I go out there, it's a post visit, not a post check," Whitehead said. "It's more of a relaxed environment, more so than if a senior security forces was to go out there; they would have to go to attention and give them a post briefing and it's more job related. When I go out, it's more about them, their family, and not necessarily about the job."

During these visits, Whitehead likes to try and keep the moral high for his Airmen.

"You bake them cookies and you drop them off, it may be a promotion ceremony and you bring a cake, it might be celebrating somebody's birthday," Whitehead said. "At the end of the day it's all about people. If you miss the people part, you're in it for the wrong reason."

Knowing his people and being actively involved in their lives helps Whitehead get ahead of preventable issues the Airmen in the squadron may encounter.

"(It's better) if I can get in there and handle it and know about their problem early," Whitehead explained. "If I can intervene before that incident happens to get them the help they need to prevent that incident, that's a good thing - I enjoy that."

As much as he enjoys when his day is going smoothly, it isn't always as such. To Whitehead, there is no "average" day in the life of a first sergeant.

"As a first sergeant, there is no structure to your day," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen - you can have an agenda of what you would like to try to accomplish, and then the phone rings and it takes you in a totally different direction.

"You are on duty 24/7 year-round," he added. "Leave is not as easy to take as a normal job that is not as demanding as a first sergeant. We have to try and give our (on-call) phone up to somebody if we want to take leave or just have a weekend off, so you have to have a backup."

This dedication to the job can bleed over into personal lives as well.

"You have to have a balance between work and family," Whitehead said. "Sometimes it can be a hard teeter-totter to balance home life with the work life, because the job can be very demanding at times."

Despite the challenges he faces as a first sergeant in the squadron, Whitehead takes it on with a positive attitude, knowing it will prepare him better for the rest of his time as a first sergeant.

"I have really grown as a person, in how I handle situations both on duty and off duty," Whitehead said. "How I look at the military is different now, because I'm not worried about getting assets out to the plane so it can take off, I'm more worried about making sure each individual person is good to go so they can go out and perform their duties."

With a changed outlook and a renewed sense of Airmanship, Whitehead looks forward to his future as a first sergeant, wherever it may take him.

"It's been a blast," he said. "I couldn't think of anywhere or any other unit to start with. Whereever I go from here will be a downhill ride, that's for sure."