Introduction to the First Sergeant

The Role, Duties, and History of the First Sergeant in the U.S. Armed Forces

Noncommissioned Officer Academy Class

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 faith. My job is people -- 

EVERY ONE IS MY BUSINESS. -- First Sergeant's Creed

If the NCOs (noncommissioned officers) are the backbone of the U.S. Armed Forces, then the First Sergeant is the heart and soul.

No other enlisted person carries near the responsibility and authority of the First Sergeant. No other person in the squadron or company, including the commissioned officers, possesses the First Sergeant's breadth of experience, professional knowledge, or education.

First Sergeant Basics

To do the job well, a First Sergeant must be an unqualified expert in promotions, demotions, military law, civilian law, counseling, discipline, leave & passes, evaluations, inspections, public speaking, billeting, PCS moves, TDYs, pay problems and procedures, child and family support, bad checks, budgeting, loans, requisitions, dress and appearance, awards and decorations, unit history, parades, ceremonies, family advocacy, medical benefits and requirements, re-enlistments, retirements, weight control, professional military education, ID card privileges, off-limit areas, restrictions, etc. The First Sergeant is the primary liaison with the commander on all matters concerning the enlisted corps.

He or she is the eye and ear for the commander and the mouth for the enlisted force. The First Sergeant carries a beeper or cell phone with him or her 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

The First Sergeant is so important, that all of the services, with the exception of the Navy and Coast Guard, use them.

The Navy and Coast Guard split the duties of the First Sergeant between various Chief Petty Officers, the COB (Chief of the Boat), and the Squadron XO's (Executive Officers).

First Sergeants in the Army and Marines

In the Army and the Marines, the First Sergeant is a rank (E-8). In the Army, depending mostly upon your MOS and other qualifications, when you are promoted to E-8, you become either a First Sergeant or a Master Sergeant (who usually serves in a staff position).

In the Army, the First Sergeant retains his or her original MOS. In other words, an Infantry MOS becomes an Infantry First Sergeant and a Medical MOS becomes a Medical First Sergeant.

In the Marine Corps, selective E-7s are chosen to become First Sergeants upon promotion to E-8. These selective few are then awarded a new MOS, and can be assigned first sergeant duties in any type of unit, regardless of their original MOS.

First Sergeants in the Air Force

In the Air Force, the position of First Sergeant used to be a volunteer-only occupation, that could be held by an E-7, an E-8, or an E-9.

Under that system one volunteered to retrain into the First Sergeant career field, and -- if accepted, remained in that job for the rest or their career, unless they applied to retrain again (or return to their AFSC), or got disqualified (fired).

All of this changed in October 2002. The job of First Sergeant in the Air Force is now a "Special Duty Assignment" with a set tour length of three years. Volunteers are still sought, but if there are not enough volunteers, non-volunteers in the ranks of E-7, E-8, or E-9 are selected (based on records and commander recommendations -- it's still highly selective).  The first tour as a "Shirt" is three years. About two years into the tour, the member can apply for another three-year tour, and, depending on Air Force needs, may be selected for a second tour. Like the Marine Corps, an Air Force First Sergeant can be assigned to first sergeant duties in any type of squadron, regardless of what their previous AFSC (job) was.

A major goal of the change was to attract more senior enlisted leaders, some of whom may not have wanted to permanently leave their functional specialty. Unlike the old "cross-training program," the special duty program is designed to return members to their original career field after serving as first sergeants.

Because of the high degree of responsibility and performance required for first sergeants, members returning to their previous jobs after this three-year tour will likely be much more competitive for promotion.

In all the services, however, you can note the first sergeant because of the diamond (or French lozenge), centered on the chevrons, which was first authorized for wear for First Sergeants in the Army in 1847.

The Importance of the First Sergeant

The Army officially says the following about the first sergeant, and it applies equally to the Air Force and Marine Corps as well:

When you are talking about the first sergeant you are talking about the life-blood of the Army. There can be no substitute of this position nor any question of its importance... Perhaps their rank insignia should be the keystone rather than the traditional one. It is the first sergeant at whom almost all unit operations merge. The first sergeant holds formations, instructs platoon sergeants, advises the Commander, and assists in training of all enlisted members... In the German Army, the first sergeant is referred to as the “Father of the Company." He is the provider, the disciplinarian, the wise counselor, the tough and unbending foe, the confidant, the sounding board, everything that we need in a leader during our personal success or failure. The Father of the Company...

The Origins of the First Sergeant 

The First Sergeant has always held a highly visible, distinctive, and sometimes notorious position in the military unit. While there is little written history and many obscure gaps, we are able to follow some of the evolution of the First Sergeant.

The 17th century Prussian Army appears to have been the starting point for what was later called the First Sergeant in the American Army. The Prussian Army Feldwebel, or Company Sergeant, by today's practice seems to have combined the duties of not only the First Sergeant but of Sergeant Major as well. Standing at the top of the noncommissioned hierarchy of rank, they were the "overseers" of the company's enlisted personnel. To this end, they kept the Hauptman, or Company Commander, informed of everything that went on in the company; whether NCOs were performing their duties in a satisfactory manner, that training was properly accomplished, and finally, that at the end of a busy day, all soldiers were accounted for in their quarters. They were the only noncommissioned officers allowed to strike a soldier; an especially disorderly soldier could be given three or four blows, with the Feldwebel's cane. They were forbidden to flog a soldier, and the Feldwebel who overstepped his authority in this manner would themselves be pilloried. Moreover, they were to see that none of the NCOs beat their soldiers.

The History of the First Sergeant in the American Army

In setting up the American Army, General Washington relied heavily on the talents of General Baron Von Steuben. During this time, Von Steuben wrote what is referred to as the "Blue Book of Regulations." This "Blue Book" covered most of the organizational, administrative, and disciplinary details necessary to operate the Continental Army.

While Von Steubon outlined the duties of such NCOs as the Sergeant Major, Quartermaster Sergeant, and other key NCOs, it was the Company First Sergeant (the American Equivalent of the Prussian Feldwebel) to which he directed most of his attention. According to Von Steubon, this noncommissioned officer, chosen by officers of the company, was the linchpin of the company and the discipline of the unit. The conduct of the troops, their exactness in obeying orders and the regularity of their manners, would "in a large measure, depend upon the First Sergeant's vigilance." The First Sergeant, therefore, must be "intimately acquainted with the character of every soldier in the company and should take great pains to impress upon their minds the indispensable necessity of the strictest obedience as the foundation of order and regularity." Their tasks of maintaining the duty roster in an equitable manner, taking "the daily orders in a book and showing them to their officers, making the morning report to the captain of the state of the company in the form prescribed, and at the same time, acquainting them with anything material that may have happened in the company since the preceding report," all closely resembled the duties of the 17th century company sergeant.

The First Sergeant also kept a company descriptive book under the captain's supervision. These descriptive books listed the names, ages, heights, places of birth, and prior occupations of all enlisted in the company. The Army maintained the books until about the decade of the 20th century when they were finally replaced by the "Morning Report."

Since the First Sergeant was responsible for the entire company, he was, in Von Steuben's words, "not to go on duty, unless with the whole company, but is to be in camp quarters to answer any call that may be made."

On the march or on the battlefield, they were "never to lead a platoon or section, but always to be a file closer in the formation of the company, their duty being in the company like the adjutant's in the regiment."

First Sergeant as "Top Kick" and "First Shirt"

In the Army and Marines, the first sergeant is often referred to as "Top" or "Top Kick." The nickname has obvious roots in that the first sergeant is the "top" enlisted person in the unit and that a "kick in the pants" is a motivation tool (not literally, at least in today's military) to get the troops into gear.

In the Air Force, a first sergeant is often referred to as "shirt," or "first shirt."​ In spite of the fact that the Air Force is a fairly young service (1947), nobody seems to know where the nickname "shirt" originated, but it has stuck around and lead to spin-off nicknames. Prospective first sergeants who are "shadowing" Air Force First ​Sergeants are known as "Under Shirts." Whereas Air Force NCOs who temporarily fill in for the first sergeant when the "shirt" is on leave, deployment, or TDY, are often referred to as "T-Shirt" (in which the "T" stands for "temporary").

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