Airman leaves diamond-hard legacy

Story and photo by Airman Larissa Greatwood
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Senior Master Sgt. Keith Custer, 86th Maintenance Squadron first sergeant, speaks with an Airman Aug. 8 on Ramstein. Custer has 10 years of first sergeant experience between 10 different units.
Senior Master Sgt. Keith Custer, 86th Maintenance Squadron first sergeant, speaks with an Airman Aug. 8 on Ramstein. Custer has 10 years of first sergeant experience between 10 different units.

It takes a certain kind of person to become an effective first sergeant. Working all hours of the day and always having to carry a phone and answer it, first sergeants put the mission before themselves and exude the Air Force second core value: service before self.

Senior Master Sgt. Keith Custer, 86th Maintenance Squadron first sergeant, took a moment to reflect on his 26-year Air Force career, 10 of which were as a first sergeant.

“The unique thing about being a first sergeant is having the opportunity to help hundreds of people, but it is not the same as being a supervisor,” he said. “Having my own team, working together and having that feeling of closeness is something I miss, though I really love what I do.”

Though Custer may miss the camaraderie of being a front line supervisor, he noted that as a first sergeant he is able to forego the daily routine of his previous job and put all of his efforts into helping Airmen.

“If someone were to look around my office, they wouldn’t see a clock anywhere,” Custer said. “In fact, there aren’t clocks in any of my offices. That’s because it isn’t about my time; it’s about the Airman’s time. The Airman in here doesn’t need to know how much time they’re taking. They take the time that’s needed. I have lots of that.”

Like many first sergeants, Custer spends the majority of his time helping Airmen with any issues they may have. These issues can range from financial troubles to personal problems. Sometimes he can even be the bearer of bad news.

“I remember one particular time I was notified of the death of an Airman’s grandmother,” Custer said. “I went to his dorm and knocked on the door.”

When Custer arrived at the dorm, he asked if the Airman had spoken to his family recently. When it became apparent he hadn’t, Custer broke the bad news.

“His grandmother was the center of his universe, and his reaction taught me to never assume,” Custer said. “You just never know how someone will react.”

Though the job may be hard at times, there are several possible advantages. First sergeants are assigned to units outside of their career field, which offers them the opportunity to meet new people and experience Air Force culture from a new perspective.

“I may not go to a unit that shares my same badge, but I adopt them, and they adopt me,” Custer said. “I learn a lot from the different units, and it gives me a greater appreciation for what they do. After I move on to another unit, I’m still their shirt. Diamonds truly are forever. It’s cliche, but it’s true.”

As a mentor, first sergeants can form working relationships with Airmen. Through the First Sergeants Association, they hold meetings to enhance things such as morale, which in turn brings them together and boosts camaraderie.

“We often ask the question, ‘Who’s the first sergeant for the first sergeant?’ Well, it’s the other first sergeants,” Custer said. “When new first sergeants come in and are enthusiastic about this job, that’s what being a first sergeant is about. It may be hard to get out of bed some days, but the encouragement we get from each other keeps us going.

“At the end of the day, anyone can do the job,” he continued. “It’s just whether or not they want to. I’ve wanted to and continue to want to, and so do my brothers and sisters. The strength they give me is really what matters. A lot of other first sergeants ask me how I could do this for so long, and I tell them, ‘It’s because of all of them.’ That’s where I get my strength — from them and my family. From the first call I received on Christmas morning, my wife said, ‘If this is what you want to do, OK.’
All she had to do was say no, and I never would have done it.”

With the support from his units, peers and family, as well as his love for the job, Custer said he couldn’t imagine having any other career, though if someone had asked him as an airman basic, he wouldn’t have thought he’d be where he is today.

“As I started making rank, people would talk to me about issues. It could be anything: off-duty, on-duty, personal,” Custer said. “It seemed it kept happening more and more. I don’t know why. So lots of times, I’d give people advice. Most times they’d take it, and it would turn out for their benefit. It started to make me feel really good.”

Around the time he made master sergeant, a peer asked him if he had ever thought about being a first sergeant.

“It planted the seed,” he said. “I was a stand-in for another first sergeant at first, and that’s when this path really began.”

With his career coming to an end, and though he will make some adjustments, he said he doesn’t regret any of the choices he’s made.

“It’s a little bit hard to take in,” Custer said. “I always tell people, ‘I’ve never had to find a job on my own.’ I had a couple little jobs before I joined the Air Force, but I got those jobs through family. Then there’s the Air Force. This is all I know. Having to lose that security blanket is a little spooky, especially retiring as early as Jan. 1, 2015.”

“When I look back, I ask myself, ‘Would I do anything differently?’ No, I wouldn’t,” Custer said. “I’ve done this, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to serve in this capacity and being able to help, because that’s what it really boils down to.”

With two and a half decades of military experience, Custer said he has been given a lot of marketable traits that will help him in his civilian life. Though the transition from military to civilian may be bittersweet, he says he knows the First Sergeants Association is in good hands. Joining the ranks of an elite group of men and women and being afforded the opportunity to be part of an even more exclusive group has given him memories that will last a lifetime.