Hard Work Required, Attendance Optional: First Sergeant Misses Cal Guard Awards Ceremony Due to Deployment; Returns in Time for National Award

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, CALIF. -- A ball room at a Marriot Hotel in Santa Clara, Calif. is filled with California National Guardsmen (both Army and Air Force) in their best mess dress.  The crowded room breaks out into applause over each name that is called; they are recipients of various awards being presented at the Outstanding Airmen and Soldier of the Year Banquet.

"The California Air National Guard's First Sergeant of the Year award goes to... Master Sgt. Sally J. Ford, 129th Rescue Wing." A standing ovation erupts from the left side of the room, a section dedicated to members of the 129th Rescue Wing. Ford, however, wasn't there to receive her award on that January night. Instead she was serving her state and nation in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve on a seven-month deployment in Saudi Arabia.

Overjoyed with excitement, her doting husband, Master Sgt. Jimmy Ford, who also serves with the 129th as an HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter aerial gunner, accepted the award in her stead.  He was also providing daddy duty while she was away to their three children, a 9-year old son along with their 7-year old twins, a boy and a girl.

After returning home from her deployment and reassuming her duties as a mother, wife, guardsman as well as her civilian duties as an Inspector General for the Army's 63rd Regional Support Command (a seven-state region with approximately 44,000 soldiers), Ford discovered that her First Sergeant of the Year award on the state level meant that she would have a bid for the same award on the national level.

"It is truly a great honor for our team that she has been recognized as the Air National Guard's First Sergeant of the Year," said Senior Master Sgt. Lindsey Bartlett, 129th Rescue Wing First Sergeant. "Her sense of duty and dedication to the men and women of the 129th is beyond reproach and a testament to the core values we all hold close: Integrity First, Service before Self and Excellence in all we do. So much of a First Sergeant's job involves working behind the scenes for the betterment of our people and the mission; it is with amazing pride that we can publicly acknowledge her accomplishments."

Ford was selected for the honor from all Air National Guard members serving in the first sergeant special duty career field.  First sergeants, or "First shirts," as they are affectionately called, serve as dedicated points of contact for health, morale, readiness and quality-of-life concerns within their units.
"To me, the best form of recognition doesn't come in the form of an accolade, but it's when you've received genuine thanks from someone you've really helped out," said Ford.  "I feel extremely privileged; when on occasion people have come up to me and let me know that in some way I was helpful, and that to me is an extreme honor and privilege because we all need help.  Everyone does."

Ford also said that being a guardsman, a wife, a mother, an IG, and a first sergeant is much like juggling plates. Trying to keep everything together can be a challenge, and she finds her guard duties even more challenging now than during her 11 years of active duty, before joining the guard in 2010.

Her first stint as a first sergeant was originally with security forces, which she said felt like home to her as she split her active duty years between security forces before cross training into a Paralegal role.

"With first sergeants, people kind of wonder what do they do," said Ford.  "We are always moving. The fact of the matter is, you will never see everything that is done by the first sergeant corp.  A lot of it is done behind closed doors; a lot of it is done after hours; a lot of it is done when people, in that moment of their lives, need someone to give them a little guidance, or give them some help. You don't hear about that.  We don't advertise that.  We don't write EPR bullets (Enlisted Performance Review comments) or put it in awards packages, but that's very much a part of what the first sergeant corps does."

A few months after returning home from deployment, Ford learned even more good news: She had been chosen to receive the First Sergeant of the Year award at the national level for the entire Air National Guard. 

This next time when those same words are read aloud to a crowd decked out in their mess dress, in our Nation's capital--"The First Sergeant of the Year award goes to... Master Sergeant Sally J. Ford"--the first sergeant herself will be present to accept the award in person, with her husband by her side.

"It's humbling and an honor to receive this award," said Ford.  Saving people's lives is the mission of this wing.  I am just one person in a whole sea of great. "