188th Airman named adjunct instructor at AF First Sergeant Academy
By Tech. Sgt. John E. Hillier, 188th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 17, 2019
EBBING AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ark. -- When the Air Force First Sergeant Academy restructured its curriculum in 2018, in-residence classroom time was doubled. To accommodate this new requirement, the academy realized a need to quickly bring additional instructors onboard as adjunct faculty, so it turned to the wealth of experience in the Air National Guard.
Answering that call was Master Sgt. Robert M. Stephens, a first sergeant with the 188th Medical Group. He is the first Airman to complete the adjunct faculty selection process and become fully-certified to instruct the new curriculum at the First Sergeant Academy.
“The opportunity to teach at the academy really seemed like it was my thing,” said Stephens. “I was an Air Education and Training Command instructor when I was on active duty. I taught Spanish-language cryptographic intelligence to tech school students, and I really enjoyed teaching and the classroom environment.”
His colleagues at the academy agree. “He’s like a fish to water. Sergeant Stephens was meant to be an instructor for the First Sergeant Academy,” said FSA Commandant Chief Master Sgt. Nathaniel Perry. “He’s already had a hand in sending 200 first sergeants out into the field, making a difference for thousands of Airmen.”
The First Sergeant Academy gives Stephens the opportunity to combine his passion for helping others with the hands-on classroom environment in which he enjoys working. Stephens completed his first class as a solo instructor in March 2019 and is learning from his students just as much as they learn from him.
“Each one of my students brings many years of experience in their life and careers – there’s so much knowledge in that classroom,” he said. “They get a lot from working through all the material together; essentially it’s a month-long first sergeant council and they’re all bringing a different perspective. I learn from them as well, and am always finding something new to take into my next classes.”
Stephens still attends drill every month in Arkansas with the 188th Medical Group, and brings that experience into the classroom as part of his instruction and discussions. This allows his students to get a picture of current conditions in the field, and leave the academy better prepared for their new positions.
“He’s not far removed from what’s happening day-to-day, and brings the operational perspective of the field into a classroom,” said Perry. “As a Total Force first sergeant, he’s able to help bridge the culture of our components and elevate knowledge for what our graduates will encounter when they go into their first assignment.”
Class material at the academy can get emotional or upsetting, and many students have their own stories to tell about a bad experience with a first sergeant. Stephens has seen first-hand how unprofessional first sergeants can devastate Airmen’s careers and lives.
“Throughout my career, both in active duty and as a Guardsman, so many people have shared stories about first sergeants who have not been there for their people,” Stephens explained, “People who were putting themselves in front of their Airmen, putting their own needs first, and not stepping up to fulfill the responsibilities of a first sergeant.”
“Stories like those lit a fire under me to make sure that I’m taking care of my people,” Stephens said. “They inspired me to become a first sergeant myself, because I knew I could do a better job than those guys. People who were depending on them deserved better.”
Stephens also uses those stories and experiences to illustrate the importance of a first sergeant to his students. “First sergeants deal with a lot of stressful situations, and it doesn’t take much for a person to feel like they’ve been overlooked,” he said. “We all get pulled in so many directions. We talk about preventing that with building resiliency, about following through and how to still be effective down the road.”
Stephens says that being able to help a person in their time of need is the best thing about serving as a first sergeant, but he’s quick to add that a far more common highlight of the job is celebrating his Airmen when they do something amazing.
One such experience was a temporary duty to rural Guatemala for an Innovative Readiness Training exercise under the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. Stephens served as the first sergeant for a team of 30 Guardsmen from the 188th and 189th Medical Groups.
“To be in Guatemala for our combined 188th and 189th team was amazing,” he said. “People operating at the apex of professionalism and doing the outstanding work they do in the medical career field. And then, to be there for them when they’re going through difficult times.”
“All the varied experiences in my career culminated in that mission,” Stephens said. “Working for our Airmen, and also with the Governor’s office, the Guatemalan Ministry of Health, and as our team’s primary Spanish speaker – all those things I do as a first sergeant, but in Spanish.”