Florida Air Guardsman named top First Sergeant

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Chelsea Smith
  • 125th Fighter Wing

JACKSONVILLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Fla. – “To the HORSE!” A chant unifying nearly 200 202nd Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers (RED HORSE) can now be rephrased as “To the SHIRT!” A nod to their award-winning First Sergeant.

Senior Master Sgt. Jonathan Sotomayor’s hard-charging efforts to improve Airmen morale and revitalize dormant programs in the 202nd RED HORSE squadron have earned him the title of the Air National Guard’s 2022 Outstanding First Sergeant of the Year.

Sotomayor represents the Florida Air National Guard as the top-performing First Sergeant within the 90 Wings across the Air National Guard.

“I never expected to receive this honor,” he said. “I was extremely humbled when I found out. I always look at it as doing my job so when they told me I won, I felt like I was recognized for just doing my job.”

Sotomayor joined the squadron following a successful stint as the First Sergeant in the 125th Maintenance and Aircraft Maintenance Squadrons, and carries over 16 years of experience working as a crew chief on the F-15C Eagle fighter jet.

“I was just about to hang up my First Sergeant hat when some of my peers encouraged me to apply for the position at the RED HORSE,” he said.

The move meant leading in unfamiliar terrain during a chaotic time in the squadron’s history. Against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic, several of the squadron’s Airmen were serving on COVID-19 testing missions across the state or preparing for an eight-month deployment to the CENTCOM area of responsibility, he said.

“This was certainly a challenge for me because it’s a completely different mission than what I did for the past 18 years on the aircraft side of the house,” he said. “When I arrived I was given the opportunity to run rough shot so I dived into the DEOCS survey [Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute Climate Survey] to look at the issues internally and find solutions to turn those things around.”

Within the first six months, Sotomayor spearheaded the complete rebuild of the awards and decorations program by executing 50 packages in four months. This resulted in a sharp boost in squadron morale, said Col. Brian Vitetta, 202nd RHS commander.

“Senior Master Sgt. Sotomayor is an expeditionary leader serving in a time-honored special duty position, rich in custom and tradition," said Vitetta. “Sotomayor is the critical link between me and the enlisted members of our unit. He is a jack of all trades and astute professional and outstanding Airmen. I could not execute my duties as a commander without him. I am truly blessed to have him by my side.”

Additionally, Sotomayor has been instrumental in boosting the welfare and morale of team members by facilitating Air Force awareness programs and promoting professional military education (PME). His efforts yielded a 10% increase in participation rates among squadron members, said Vitetta.

“I came up in the age when having the CCAF [Community College of the Air Force] degree was instrumental in your career,” said Sotomayor. “So I believe PME is vital to an organization and culture. If you can explain how important extra education is you’re going to end up with a better Airman overall.”

As a trusted First Sergeant, he implemented resiliency focus groups for over 100 deployed Airmen – a key initiative to resolve complex issues. He’s also been the driving force for Airman and Family support programs through the DoD’s Yellow Ribbon Program – helping more than 50 Airmen to reintegrate following their deployments. Further, he enlisted the help of the Wing’s Director of Psychological Health to host the first Reintegration Workshop which provided counseling tools for transitioning families.

These initiatives were more than bullets for the 21-year veteran, who said he looked for these types of programs and models of leadership as a young Airmen trying to assimilate to military structures and expectations.

“When I was growing through the ranks I was one of those guys that people said would never make it as a First Sergeant,” he said. “I was an immature Airman at times but I recognized there were better or smarter ways to do things. My 1st Sgts were some of my first mentors and encouraged me to believe that I had the ability to improve the lives of Airmen one day.”

That sustained enthusiasm and investment in people is why the First Sergeant hat fits so well on Sotomayor. But he’s taking it off – for good – by the end of 2022, he said.

“It’s bittersweet that it’s coming to an end,” he said. “But I’m ready for the next chapter in my life. I’m going to school to be an engineering assistant next and I’ve also applied for additional courses with NGB [National Guard Bureau]. I want to continue to help the 202nd grow and continue that upward momentum we have.”

While he’s certainly left his mark by achieving this recognition, he returns all the credit to the Airmen who call him “Shirt.”

“This was a total team win,” he said. “I couldn’t have done this without the team Col. Vitetta has assembled. We have some of the best of the best down at the HORSE. My time here was somewhat easy because I was surrounded by so many experts and people who are excellent at their jobs.”

Sotomayor will be celebrated in August during the ANG’s Focus on the Force Week, hosted by the command chief of the ANG. He’ll join a panel of this year’s Outstanding Airmen of the Year winners who will be recognized for exceptional achievements and contributions to their units and Air Force, as a whole.