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Dedication to the First Sergeant

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First Sergeant Diamond Symbol

"Unofficial" First Sergeant emblem.

Copyright Rod Powers
In the Air Force, a first sergeant is often referred to as "shirt," or "first shirt." In spite of the fact that the Air Force is a fairly young service (1947), nobody seems to know where the nickname "shirt" originated. One theory is that the term dates back to colonial times. When supplies would come in, the Top Sergeant would get the "first shirt" before the rest of the troops did. Another theory is that the troops would take their shirts off to do manual labor in the hot weather. The First Sergeant would leave his shirt on, as he was supervising, not doing any of the labor himself. When someone needed further instructions, they would have to talk to "the shirt."

I personally don't buy either of these theories. The Air Force has no history dating back to "colonial times." The Air Force became a separate service (from the Army) in 1947. If this "custom" dated back to colonial times, it would have been infused in the Army, as well. Wherever the term "shirt" came from, it's most likely from sometime after 1947, when the Air Force separated from Army customs and influence.

One final note about the term "shirt:" Prospective first sergeants who are "shadowing" Air Force first sergeants as part of the selection process are known as "Under Shirts." Air Force NCOs who temporarily fill in for the first sergeant when the "shirt" is on leave, deployment, or TDY, are often referred to as "T-Shirt," (The "T" stands for "Temporary.")

Original Author of First Sergeant History Unknown. Updated by Rod Powers in 1999, and 2003

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