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First shirts attend Yellow Ribbon en masse

Chief Master Sgt. Paul Tomlinson, the Air Force Reserve Command's functional manager of the first sergeant career field, welcomes first sergeants to a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program training event July 22, 2016, in Houston, Texas. More than 30 enlisted leaders attended the training to learn more about the program, which promotes the well-being of reservists and their loved ones by connecting them with resources before and after deployments. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Ben Mota)

Chief Master Sgt. Paul Tomlinson, the Air Force Reserve Command's functional manager of the first sergeant career field, welcomes first sergeants to a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program training event July 22, 2016, in Houston, Texas. More than 30 enlisted leaders attended the training to learn more about the program, which promotes the well-being of reservists and their loved ones by connecting them with resources before and after deployments. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Ben Mota)

HOUSTON -- More than 30 Air Force Reserve first sergeants attended a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program training event July 23-24 here to familiarize themselves with the system that helps pre- and post-deployment Airmen and their loved ones.

What they learned could come in handy to them personally as a dozen or more first sergeants are set to deploy in early 2017, a dramatic increase over the pace of the last few years, said Chief Master Sgt. Paul Tomlinson, functional manager of the first sergeant career field at Air Force Reserve Command headquarters, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. Six Reserve first sergeants deployed in each of the past few years. Up to 40 are scheduled to deploy throughout fiscal year 2017, a pace may continue for the next few years. The new pace reflects a deliberate increase sought by retired Chief Master Sgt. Michael Bellerose, Tomlinson’s predecessor.

“Knowledge is power,” Tomlinson told the enlisted leaders at a gathering just prior to the event’s start. “To deploy successfully and redeploy successfully you need the knowledge. Learn something about yourself this weekend. You’re going to have changes when you deploy. You’ll have been in a war environment.”

First sergeants work as advisers to commanders on issues that affect enlisted Airmen in completing their unit mission. This was the first Yellow Ribbon event for nearly all of the first sergeants who attended. The program promotes the well-being of reservists and their loved ones by connecting them with resources before and after deployments. It was the first, too, for Tomlinson, who was on an active-duty tour at the Air Force First Sergeant Academy in Montgomery, Alabama, for four years until last fall, when he assumed his current post in which he leads more than 500 first sergeants.

Tomlinson worked with the Yellow Ribbon management team at command headquarters to get so many first sergeants approved to attend the same event. Normally, they may only participate if five or more reservists from their units attend a training weekend. The idea of a mass attendance was that of Senior Master Sgt. Jackie Zawada, a reservist at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, who is on active duty managing Yellow Ribbon’s logistics operation and youth programs. She proposed it to her supervisors as she was concerned about there being a missed connection between the program and first sergeants.

“They are the communicators and supporters for their entire unit and those who have never seen Yellow Ribbon can’t really give a firsthand experience to their members,” she said. “I was really glad they were allowed to attend.”

Senior Master Sgt. Tracy Cornett of the command’s Force Generation Center at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, said many first sergeants have deployment experience from career fields they were in before becoming part of unit leadership but are concerned about doing so as first sergeants. Participating in the weekend training helped, said Cornett, who deployed as a first sergeant in 2011-2012.

“I took care of people when I was overseas and Yellow Ribbon took care of me when I got home,” said Cornett, a law enforcement officer in Lenoir, North Carolina.

Master Sgt. Rebecca Wyatt of the 916th Civil Engineer Flight at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, said she attended the Texas training to learn more about the program so she can do a better job of explaining it to her Airmen.

“It’s good info and it’s not just checking a block,” she said. “It’s something you can actually do. You come take it all in and all you have to do is give up a weekend.”

Maj. Gen. Jocelyn Seng, the senior officer present at the event, said she was delighted that so many first sergeants could attend. She is mobilization assistant to the commander and president of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

“You’re a whole second critical wave,” she told the enlisted leaders. “It’s focused time at a great pace (so) you can absorb everything. It’s a menu and you can pick from it.”

Tomlinson compared first sergeants to human resources managers at civilian firms, asking who better than them to spread the word about what Yellow Ribbon offers. He compared the program to a person who can change your life yet you haven’t met them met.

“You need to go and meet them,” he said. “That’s what Yellow Ribbon is like; it has the potential to change your career, your life.”

Yellow Ribbon began in 2008 following a congressional mandate for the Department of Defense to assist reservists and National Guard members in maintaining resiliency as they transition between their military and civilian roles. Each year, the Air Force Reserve program trains 7,000 reservists and those closest to them in education benefits, health care, retirement information and more.

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