News: First sergeants share own view from the 'top'
Story by Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
By Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
Multi-National Division - Center
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq – Sometimes, the role of a first sergeant in the Army is not so much like that of a juggler, but like a spinner - trying to keep all the plates spinning at once on several poles. The instant the spinner forgets to check up on one of the plates, things start to unravel.
At least, that is how 1st Sgt. Mark Wokasch described it. He has been a first sergeant a little longer than a year, now serving as the top non-commissioned officer for Headquarters Support Company, Division Special Troops Battalion, 10th Mountain Division.
"One of the hardest parts about being a leader is following up on every situation that Soldiers have," said Wokasch, a native of Bemidji, Minn. "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."
"That's true," said 1st Sgt. Clifford Lo about the metaphor. "I'm always putting out fires. Things come up that either should have been taken care of, or just came up last minute."
The nickname "Top" didn't come from the spinning toy favored by children, although that may be what it feels like to be a first sergeant, always spun in different directions by his own Soldiers. The nickname is given to first sergeants because they serve at the highest NCO level that still mentors and trains enlisted Soldiers. His role is that of a caretaker and a problem solver. Once an NCO reaches the level of sergeant major, his role is more involved with policy-making.
"[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 supposed to," said Lo, the first sergeant for Headquarters & Headquarters Co., 445th Civil Affairs Bn.
The view from the Top can be quite a sight. Suddenly, a first sergeant finds himself in charge of a hundred Soldiers or more. As a young sergeant, he was working one-on-one with a small group of privates and specialists. Then, his responsibility grew to squad, then platoon ... Now, the whole company is before him, and every pair of eyes looks straight up to him for advice and help with personal and professional problems. That's quite a lot of plates to spin.
"[We are] with the Soldiers on a daily basis ... to make sure that [NCOs] conduct training with them, conduct daily business, conduct inspections, making sure the Soldier is living right, taking care of any type of matters at hand with Soldiers," Wokasch said.
For Lo, however, there is no such thing as reaching the top. The view changes constantly as Soldiers move up through the ranks, but it's still a climb, even now, after 19 years in the Army.
"The learning doesn't stop where we are," said Lo, of San Fancisco. "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 number one rule in life is to always find ways to advance, find ways to grow. In his view, first sergeants should never be afraid to learn, even from their own junior Soldiers – whether it be a in a firefight or in their daily jobs.
For Wokasch, his number one rule in life is always to take care of a Soldier's family. Staying in touch and handling Family matters should come first because they affect every other aspect of a Soldier's life.
"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," said Wokasch, who attends regular family reunions to Disney World with his wife, Maria.
"I try to make sure that Soldiers understand that family is very important. 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."
That obviously falls in line with the NCO Creed, which states, "I know my Soldiers, and I will always place their needs above my own." Very often, a first sergeant has to place himself second, or even last, depending on the needs of his troops. Understanding the Soldiers' needs and communicating with them is a big part of that.
The communication starts at an early stage as an NCO, Wokasch said. It starts as early as being a young sergeant or even staff sergeant. From there, responsibility builds, tasks grow, and eventually more Soldiers come under a first sergeant's mentorship. They cannot do this all at once, and definitely not all on their own.
"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 could pass down their knowledge to the lower enlisted."
With so many plates on the spindles, it's always better to have a few more hands to help out with the spinning.