Bandsman fills in as PACAF First Shirt

  • Published
  • By Maj. Richard Sater
  • HQ PACAF Public Affairs
Singing is easy. Being the first sergeant for the largest Air Force major command headquarters in the world is not.

Master Sgt. Debra Jamison knows. She has done both - at the same time.

Assigned to the Pacific Air Forces Band of the Pacific here, Sergeant Jamison found herself holding down two full-time jobs at once for two weeks in late May and early June: one as vocalist, supervisor and resource advisor for the band; and the other, as the acting first sergeant for Headquarters PACAF while the assigned chief was away on a temporary duty assignment.

A 24-year Air Force veteran, Sergeant Jamison has spent 19 of those years as a singer with various Air Force bands. Since her 2001 assignment to PACAF, she has also served as the band's unofficial first sergeant, or "shirt" - the senior counselor and confidante for the band in addition to her regular rehearsal and performance duties. Being unofficial, however, she does not wear the mark of the first sergeant: a diamond emblem as part of the rank chevron.

But she was more than a little surprised to get a call from Chief Master Sgt. Michael Rennie, asking her to fill in during his absence.

The job would require her to fill a position with a level of responsibility two ranks higher than her own. Chief Rennie's vote of confidence gave her a tremendous lift, and when PACAF band director Chief Master Sgt. Sharon Johnson gave her the green light, Sergeant Jamison accepted without hesitation.

Chief Rennie regularly assigns other unit first sergeants to stand in for him when he is absent. "I was honored. Excited. Nervous. There's a lot of responsibility, and all eyes were on me," Sergeant Jamison says. "It's the first time the chief picked someone who wasn't an actual diamond-wearer to fill in for him." It was also the first time a band NCO was selected to sit in for the chief.

The first sergeant serves as an advisor to PACAF commander Gen. Paul Hester and vice commander Maj. Gen. Edward Rice as well as others on the largest command support staff in PACAF. The shirt also provides leadership, guidance, and expertise to 18 directorates under Headquarters PACAF and advises the headquarters squadron commander - Maj. Daniel Jacobson - on command policy. Finally, the shirt is the single-button point-of-contact for quality of life issues for 1,200 military and civilian assigned personnel on the staff.

A good first shirt is a mentor, teacher, counselor, cheerleader, friend, resource, and - when necessary - stern parent. It's a daunting responsibility.

Sergeant Jamison stepped into the chief's shoes May 24th.

"It was eye-opening," she says.

It was an opportunity to excel, and she took full advantage of it. She particularly enjoyed the variety of duties that came with the position. She provided guidance to senior leaders on enlisted issues and served as a counselor to any Airman who needed a sympathetic ear to discuss family problems, finances, or career moves. She found herself involved in the paperwork too, such as providing quality checks for enlisted performance reports and various after-action reports.

The best part of the job?

"People. Meeting people and interacting with a great staff" assigned to the headquarters, she says. "I met people I've only talked to on the phone. Finally, I could connect faces with the names."

The biggest challenge was "getting that call at 2 in the morning from the law enforcement desk" about an airman on base or in town who was in trouble, she says. She'd hit the road and head out to do what she could to assist.

"First I made sure the airman was safe. Then I'd deal with the issues" that led to the call - whether disciplinary or some other cause. "Sometimes good people just make wrong choices."

Difficult in a different way were the Red Cross calls, she says. On several occasions, she had to notify an Airman that a family member had passed away. "My job was to see that they could get home quickly - without all the bumps and stress" that can complicate an already-emotional situation, she says.

Filling in for the first sergeant did not excuse her from the band. She continued rehearsing and performing, and attending to the administrative work required of a resource advisor. Working two full-time jobs meant long hours, particularly when the shirt is essentially on duty or on call 24 hours a day and seven days a week, but with careful management and attention to detail, she balanced both until the Chief Rennie returned June 4.

Her performance experience as a singer helped prepare her to assume the chief's job, she says. One can't be a singer without enjoying the interaction and communication with the audience, and Jamison relished the opportunity to put her skills to work in a different venue.

Earlier this year, she'd been selected to participate in a weeklong Air Force Sergeants Academy seminar held here to prepare senior-enlisted Airmen to be first sergeants. Only a few non-"shirts" were selected to participate, but Sergeant Jamison was one of them.

"It really helped," she says.

More help came from Sergeant Jamison's family, which provided enthusiastic support: husband Gil Neto and children Latisha, Monique, Jamila, and Weza. Her mother, Edna Mae Jamison, came from Concord, Calif., to assist at home.

A native of Oakland, Calif., Sergeant Jamison enlisted in the Air Force in 1983 and was assigned to the supply career field in inventory management. She got her start as a performer when friends urged her to audition for the 1986 edition of Tops in Blue, the Air Force's annual showcase for talented musicians in the ranks.

"I got the part," she says. She spent a year on the road touring with the show, gathering valuable performance experience and honing her own style. At the end of the year, she auditioned for a full-time position with the Air Force band - her assignment ever since.

Singing is easy, Sergeant Jamison says, but her adventure as the acting first sergeant for the Headquarters PACAF was positive enough that she might make a different choice if she had the chance to start her Air Force career all over again.

"I would love to be a first sergeant. It was a great experience."