Army First Sergeants Share View From the 'Top'
By Army Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq, Jan. 27, 2009 An Army first sergeant’s role is not unlike that of a performer attempting to keep several plates spinning atop poles. When he forgets to tend to one of the plates, all of them begin to crash down.
At least, that’s how 1st Sgt. Mark Wokasch describes his job.
"One of the hardest parts about being a leader is following up on every situation that soldiers have," Wokasch, the top noncommissioned officer for 10th Mountain Division’s Headquarters Support Company, Division Special Troops Battalion, said. "A lot of soldiers have many problems, and as leaders, we're always the guy that's standing there spinning the plates on the spindles."
Army 1st Sgt. Clifford Lo said he agrees with the metaphor. "That's true. I'm always putting out fires,” he said. “Things come up that either should have been taken care of, or just came up last-minute."
The nickname "Top" is given to first sergeants because they serve at the highest noncommissioned officer level, mentoring and training enlisted soldiers. Their role is that of a caretaker and problem solver.
"[We're] the ones who make stuff happen. In order to let the officers do their job, we have to ensure we do ours, make sure we uphold a standard and move along everyone as [they’re] supposed to," Lo, the first sergeant for the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, said.
The view from the top can be quite a sight, with first sergeants overseeing a hundred soldiers or more.
"[We are] with the soldiers on a daily basis … to make sure that [NCOs] conduct training with them, conduct daily business, conduct inspections,” Wokasch said.
After 19 years in the Army, Lo said, it’s a never-ending quest to improve.
"The learning doesn't stop where we are," Lo, a San
Francisco native, said. "We're always adjusting, learning. … You can always get better [than] where you are. Just because you're good, that doesn't mean you should stop [improving]."
In fact, Lo said, his No. 1 rule in life is always to find ways to advance and to grow. In his view, first sergeants should never be afraid to learn, even from their own junior soldiers, whether it be in a firefight or in the daily job.
Wokasch said his top priority is to take care of soldiers’ families. Family relationships affect every aspect of a soldier’s life, he said, so he makes it a point to ensure soldiers are staying in touch and handling family matters back home.
"That's a big rule of mine to follow. If your family is not
straight, a lot of other things won't be straight in your life," he said.
"I try to make sure that soldiers understand that family is very important,” he continued. “If they don't follow through with it, they'll see down the road a lot of things will fall apart, whether it's their job or conducting daily business."
Communication and an understanding of soldiers' needs are vital components of a first sergeant’s job, Lo said. But with such a heavy workload, the first sergeants must rely on others to help.
"You can only have time to really mentor anywhere between maybe five and eight soldiers [at a time]," Lo said. "So you think as a first sergeant, you try to work with your senior enlisted first, so that way they [can] pass down their knowledge to the lower enlisted."
With so many plates on the line, it's always better to have a few extra hands to help out with the spinning, he explained.
(Army Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret serves in Multinational Division Center.)