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No need for first sergeants

BOLLING AIR FORCE BASE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA -- I've always said and always will say, "There wouldn't be a need for first sergeants if first-line supervisors would do their supervisory duties."

Just stop and think about this statement for a second. What is the difference between an involved first-line supervisor and a first sergeant? Both can make referrals to any base agencies: Life skills, alcohol and drug abuse prevention and treatment, chaplain, area defense council, family support and family advocacy to mention a few. However, most first-line supervisors are reluctant to make that call.

I hear excuses from supervisors like, "I don't want to get that involved in their personal life," or "I have other Airmen to worry about. Isn't that your job shirt?"

The answer to that question is yes and no. Whom is that first sergeant going to go to for information on the well-being of one of the Airmen in his squadron? The first-line supervisor. They are in the best position to observe their Airmen daily and to note any changes in behavior.

Let me give you an example of non-involvement by first-line supervision. During my first week as a shirt, I was called on the phone by the neighbors of one of my single-parent Airmen. The neighbor explained to me that once again my Airman's 2-year old daughter was out walking alone on the streets of base housing, except this time she was naked and covered in dog waste. I did a quick check to see who the Airman's supervisor was and gave him a call to meet me at the Airman's residence.

We made contact with the neighbors and asked if they had tried to knock on the door to see if the mother was home. They said yes, but there wasn't any answer and the door was ajar. All I could think was something was very wrong with this situation. I called the base commander and got permission to enter the home with a patrolman to check out the situation.

As I opened the door, there was an overwhelming stench coming from the house. The front door opened into a long hallway. On both sides of the hall there was old trash piled knee high with insects running in and out. As I walked down the hall, I called out very loud to the Airman to make sure she knew we had entered. Silence was all we got. As I passed the kitchen area, the sink and counters were piled high with old dirty plates, rodent droppings, trash and spoiled food at least a foot high. I could tell from the smell it had been sitting there for awhile.

We made it into the living room and noticed there were clothing boxes still unpacked in the living room. I found out later she had moved into base housing seven months earlier. There was a mattress on the floor covered in dirty laundry, again piled high.

Trash was piled against the walls and dog waste was smashed into the floor. We finally found the dog locked in the bathroom, barely alive. It seemed she was just dumping the food on the floor for the dog to eat, and make its waste in. The dog's water was provided by the toilet. I finally told the patrolman to call the combat photographer we needed to get photo documentation. The mother and daughter's rooms weren't much better. There were dirty diapers smashed on the floor with tiny footprints. I could tell the child was left in the room alone to wade in her own waste. There was still no sign of the Airman.

As we stood out in the living room waiting for the combat photographer, I notice hair sticking out from underneath the pile of dirty clothes on the mattress. Good God, I thought she was dead. As I raised the pile of clothes to check I heard her say, "Oh shirt, I'm so sorry. My daughter must have got out again."

Lengthy story, but all of this could have been avoided by one simple factor -- first-line supervisory involvement. I called the supervisor into my office later that night and asked him what steps did he take to make sure his Airman was welcomed to the squadron? I just got the blank look of wonder. I had to explain to this NCO that maybe it would have been a good idea to see if she needed any help moving in, seeing as she was a single mother with a 2-year-old strapped to her hip.

I then asked him how many times he had made contact with her to see how things were going. Again no reply. I then told him, "I wish I had a time machine so I could go back in time and slap his supervisor for training him wrong." You see, it doesn't take a shirt to check on everyone. It only takes a good first-line supervisor doing his job to avoid these situations.

If I could pass on any one thing to young NCOs, it would be to stay involved with their Airmen. You can do the same job as a first sergeant. Don't ever be afraid to get too involved. Remember, it'll save you a lot of pain further down the line.

Some of you are thinking, "OK, what happened to the Airman and her daughter?"

I pulled the supervisor into my office and showed him how to call family advocacy to make a referral. I also showed the supervisor how to make a life skills referral. I also contacted her family members, who were living within 45 miles, to come out and help her.

It seems the Airman had left her husband who was beating and choking her until she was unconscious. She was in deep depression and felt there was nowhere to turn because her supervisor said he didn't have time to deal with her personal problems. He had a shift to run.

She finally got the help she needed and was able to learn how to cope with her situation. She was fairly productive for her last three years of service, but then she separated and I still wonder how she is doing.

If the supervisor had gotten involved earlier in her situation, he would have realized there is more involved than just the job: A little girl and mother's well-being was at stake.