ONE: hello, first sergeant

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom --
ONE.1  |  ONE.2  |

ONE: hello, first sergeant(U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
 
He sighed. It wasn't an audible, overemphasized breath, but rather an expression of relief as he stared at the last email he needed to answer before he could go home and see his family.

For the briefest of moments, he enjoyed the gentle breeze that floated in through the windows and the late afternoon sun beaming against the glass.

Suddenly, a shrill, electronic whine pierced the tranquility. Robotically, almost instinctively, the uniformed man reached for his hip and produced the source of the disturbance.

"Hello, First Sergeant," he said calmly, placing the phone to his ear.

Master Sgt. Nathan Pollard listened intently to the voice on the other end of the line. As first sergeant for the 423rd Air Base Group, the call could be about anything from recognizing the achievements of one Airman to the progressive discipline of another.


Master Sgt. Nathan Pollard, 423rd Air Base Group first sergeant, works through an issue during a phone conversation at RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom, June 30, 2014. As a first sergeant, Pollard is primarily focused on the health, morale, welfare and discipline of a unit. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
 

"It's the bane of my existence sometimes," he said, after hanging up the phone. "It takes a lot of focus. You've got to start with one conversation, be fully into it, and then immediately switch to another."

Admittedly, Pollard said acclimating to the role of a first sergeant took quite a bit of practice. The difficulty of focusing entirely on the health, morale, welfare and discipline of a unit comes from seamlessly transitioning between such diverse interactions with Airmen. Experience, more than natural affinity, helps Pollard make the adjustment from praising people for their excellence to counseling someone for failing to meet a standard.

"I carry some of the baggage over from one conversation to another, sometimes," he said. "I try not to, but you never know when it's those really deep conversations where the issues are career impacting."

He paused and leaned back in his chair, silently admonishing himself for the times he can remember letting his emotions dictate his actions.

"Occasionally, it's learning through trial and error," Pollard said. "Putting yourself in a situation where you realize you could have handled it differently, and then being honest with yourself afterward."

Constantly revisiting Airmen is a cornerstone of Pollard's philosophy as a first sergeant. Reaching out should never be a "one-off," he said.

"It's never just a onetime thing," Pollard said. "Our Airmen go through ups and downs and we are right there with them to get through those times."


Master Sgt. Nathan Pollard, 423rd Air Base Group first sergeant, pauses and responds to a message during a physical training session at RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom, June 24, 2014. First sergeants are often on-call for their Airmen and commanders at any time, day or night. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
 
For Pollard, some of the worst days wearing the diamond have come from the administrative actions against Airmen. Part of being a first sergeant means getting to know the people within a unit. However, with that, shirts often becomes personally invested their Airmen.

"The administrative actions, the demotions and separations are especially difficult," Pollard said. "The first couple I did were really hard. As anybody who supervises, you get connected to your Airmen. You never want them to fail. But, at the same time, people put themselves in situations where they climb onto a train already bound for an end state."

When he first began wearing the diamond, Pollard said it was difficult accepting the mindset that he was doing everything he could, based on the given circumstances. Watching good Airmen make bad choices is by far the hardest part of the job, he said.

"I do it better now," he admitted. "There are still a few instances where I think, 'how did you get yourself into this situation.'"

Despite the highs and lows of his chosen career path, Pollard said he remains committed to his Airmen and personally invested in their lives.

"You have to be personally involved with your people," he commented. "If you're not then people aren't going to connect with you and then you are not their shirt. Rapports aren't built when bad things happen, it starts when you walk in the door and sit down with me during in-processing."

Being a first sergeant means being there for Airmen and celebrating accomplishments just as much as helping them through failures, Pollard said. It means understanding the intrinsic value of people over processes and properly measuring that through dedicated performance feedbacks.

Master Sgt. Nathan Pollard, 423rd Air Base Group first sergeant, reviews the Airman Comprehensive Assessment forms at RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom, June 30, 2014. Pollard said the new evaluation system allows Airmen to evaluate their own performance and pair it with their supervisors' rating. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
 
"I can tell you honestly that the Airman Comprehensive Assessment is much more in-depth than what we used to get with our performance feedbacks," he said. "Before, it was very subjective. But now, the questions they are asking are very particular and use Airmen to help tier themselves. The end state is still to be determined. First, we have to see how supervisors own it, how our chains of command enforce it and what the result will be."

While on one hand, Pollard waits to see how the new evaluation system will take hold and develop the current force structure, on the other he focuses on supporting Airmen as they transition from military to civilian life.

"I think the Air Force has done a really good job putting the transition information out early, because being knowledgeable makes the entire process easier," he said. "It all depends on the people, though. If they want to stay in, it makes everything that much harder; but if they have accepted that it's time to start considering these venues leading to a transition into a civilian status it can make the process easier."

Despite the budget cuts and reductions in force, Pollard is confident in the future of the service and the Airmen of today who will lead it tomorrow.

"We have a great system and great people to carry it forward," Pollard said. "We only make it better every day. Every day I am working to build the people who will replace me. I know that if something happened tomorrow that pulled me away from here there are people who would pull the chocks and go."

Master Sgt. Nathan Pollard, 423rd Air Base Group first sergeant, talks with Airmen during a dorm inspection at RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom, June 20, 2014. According to Pollard, programs, like dorm inspections, ensure Airmen are aware of U.S. Air Force standards and adhere to them. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
 

It comes down to a choice, Pollard said. The future of the Air Force belongs to Airmen who choose to take ownership of it.

"I personally feel that everybody makes a choice," he said. "You can either feel that the Air Force has done you wrong and you want to get out, or you can choose to own up to the circumstances in your life and make the most of them. The time and place we are in forces us to make tough choices about our people. It is much more advantageous for us if you want to be here than for me to convince you that you want to be here."

Pollard said building that whole Airman is not something that comes from his leadership; it comes from an internal drive to serve and be a part of something greater. As a first sergeant, he is on-hand to mold and develop Airmen to take the reins of the future.

He paused again, his thoughts interrupted by a ringing phone once more. Without a moment's hesitation, he reached for the device and held it to his ear.

"Hello, First Sergeant."