The first sergeant is here to help

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Tamara R. Dabney
  • 103rd Airlift Wing

Whether an airman is going through a crisis at 2 o’clock in the afternoon or 2 o’clock in the morning, it is the first sergeant’s job to be available to provide support. In other words, the first sergeant, or “first shirt” as they are informally referred to in the Air Force, is always on call. In an interview, Senior Master Sgt. Joe L. Stanford, III, discusses what inspires him to dedicate his time to the health, morale, welfare and discipline of airmen as a first sergeant. He also talks about countering the stigma associated with airmen receiving counsel from first sergeants.

Stanford joined the Active Duty Air Force in 2000, then transferred to the Connecticut Air National Guard in 2010, where he currently serves as a member of the 103rd Maintenance Group. In 2021, his unit leadership recognized him as an outstanding performer and he was subsequently STEP promoted from Master Sgt. to Senior Master Sgt.


So tell me a little bit about what you do as a first sergeant.

I take care of the health, welfare and morale of everyone in the maintenance group. So, I ensure that the people are ready and that they're ready to deploy. My job is essentially just to help people out in different situations, to make sure that they’re whole.


What made you want to become a first sergeant?

Well, what made me want to become a first sergeant was kind of an accident. Lt. Col. Chmielinski and Senior Master Sgt. Armstrong in civil engineering were trying to convince me to be a first sergeant for a while. I always had a knack for helping people out in different situations and lead different programs. Because of that, I had opportunity on a deployment to Israel to do first sergeant duties, and I really, really enjoyed it. Senior Armstrong allowed that to happen. And then, when I came back, I was energized from it. I decided to apply and got accepted to be a first sergeant. And I've also had really good first sergeants in the past that did really great things to help me out when I had different situations.


You said you have a knack for helping people out. Do people approach you? Or, do you have this intuition, where you just know when ‘something's up?

I say, all of the above. People know I have an open door [policy]. I also make sure everybody has my cell phone number. So as I'm walking around the sections, I'm talking to people. I've had numerous people just walk up to me to have conversations about situations, and then I end up helping them out. I also have a pretty good intuition when I'm talking to people and they're telling me how things are going in their lives. Also, if a supervisor needs help, when it comes to airmen, they tend to come to me and we'll have conversations; I coach them through things.


There's still a bit of a stigma that the primary role of a first sergeant is negative; the role involves negative aspects, like discipline. For example,  if an airman has to go see the first sergeant, there’s this idea that it is probably because they got a DUI, they were in jail, or that sort of thing. How do you combat the stigma and send the message that airmen can come to you for support, not just when they’re in trouble?

I look at the discipline side of being a first sergeant as trying to rehabilitate a person and help them through the situation. Paperwork is just to help people understand the reality of what may occur if the behavior continues. Even if a person has crossed the line and gone over too far, we still help them out, as they transition to the private sector and let them know that they can still get help. So, the way that I look at discipline, is it's just, you know, a point in time where something went wrong and you need help readjusting. Everyone has stumbling blocks in life. Sometimes it's those stumbling blocks that help make people who they are and the leaders that they are, because they've had a good first sergeant.


What is one thing that you want all airmen to know?

The message that I have for all Airmen is to keep doing the best that you can. Always know that your leadership, especially your first sergeant, is here to support you. As guardsmen, we all have different things we have to balance, between personal life and the military. Be strategic about your career by looking two to three steps ahead. And know that anyone who holds a diamond is always here to help out Airmen, in all situations, at any time.


Air Force First Sergeant Creed 

I am a First Sergeant. My job is people—Every One is my Business. I dedicate my time and energy to their needs; Their health, morale, discipline and welfare. I grow in strength by strengthening my people. My job is done in faith; my people build my faith. The Air Force is my life; I share it with my people I believe in the Air Force goal— “We take care of our own.” My job is people— Everyone is my business.”