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Black History Month: Always in your corner

Photo of first sergeant sitting at his desk

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ato Ellis, 435th Air Expeditionary Wing and 435th Air Ground Operations Wing first sergeant, poses for a portrait at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 12, 2020. First sergeants help Airmen through critical times in their lives. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor D. Slater)

Photo of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright with a group of first sergeants

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright (middle), poses for a photo with Master Sgt. Ato Ellis, 435th Air Expeditionary Wing and 435th Air Ground Operations Wing first sergeant (back row, left), and other Ramstein Air Base first sergeants at the Air Force Sergeants Association Professional Airman’s Conference in San Antonio, Texas, Sept. 2019. Ellis has held the first sergeant position since 2018. (Courtesy Photo)

Photo of first sergeant speaking to Airmen

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ato Ellis, 435th Air Expeditionary Wing and 435th Air Ground Operations Wing first sergeant (right), teaches Airmen at the First Sergeant Symposium at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 2019. Ellis plans to pursue a teaching career after his time in the Air Force. (Courtesy Photo)

A U.S. Air Force first sergeant posing with Airmen wearing sports gear.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ato Ellis, 435th Air Expeditionary Wing and 435th Air Ground Operations Wing first sergeant, poses for a photo with members of the 435th Security Forces Squadron at the 435th AGOW annual awards ceremony in Vogelweh, Germany, Jan. 2020. Ellis won the award for 435th SFS First Sergeant of the Year in 2019. (Courtesy Photo)

Photo of two Airmen conversing at a table

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ato Ellis, 435th Air Expeditionary Wing and 435th Air Ground Operations Wing first sergeant (left), speaks with Captain Michael Thrasher, 435th Security Forces Squadron director of operations, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 12, 2020. First sergeants advise commanders about issues concerning their Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor D. Slater)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany --

The power of solidarity is a wonderful thing.


In 2015, as a maintainer assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Maintenance Squadron at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, then Tech. Sgt. Ato Ellis received very frightening news: the wife of one of his Airmen had gone into labor four months early. She had to be hospitalized, taking a huge mental and financial toll until the baby could be safely delivered. Taking care of people when stakes are high is difficult, but Ellis’s shop came together to assist them by providing financial help, encouraging them in the hospital, and filling in for them at work. This marked one of the first times Ellis worked closely with a first sergeant.


What started as a crisis became a fond memory and rallying point for Ellis’s flight. The event inspired him to become a first sergeant.


“Fixing planes is awesome,” Ellis said. “But you’ll never be able to do [what we did] with a plane. You can only do that with a person.”


Now Master Sgt. Ato Ellis, 435th Air Expeditionary Wing and 435th Air Ground Operations Wing first sergeant, said the first sergeant position is the best job in the Air Force.


Ellis’s interest in serving started after a series of behavioral problems landed him at Valley Forge Military Academy in high school. The values taught there would change the course of his life.


“That military culture stuck with me and I thrived in it,” Ellis said. “So I decided to join.”


Ellis began his Air Force career in maintenance initially assigned to Ramstein Air Base. He then went to RAF Mildenhall for seven years before finally returning to Ramstein Air Base and promoting to master sergeant.


It was upon Ellis’s return that he began to shadow a prior first sergeant, then Master Sgt. Benjamin Cameron, 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron first sergeant. He became really attracted to the job because of how deeply satisfying it was to help people.


“I told him, ‘I gotta do this job,’” Ellis said. “‘I’m in love with it.”


Ellis was selected as a first sergeant in late 2017 and came to the 435th SFS in March 2018.


The position is not without its difficulties. Ellis said seeing Airmen at their worst is one of the most difficult parts of the job, but it’s important to remember all Airmen are human.


“People need help,” Ellis said. “Even if others might perceive that person as bad. Sometimes you might be the only person in their corner and this job affords you the opportunity to do that,” Ellis said. “There’s really nothing like it.”


Moreover, first sergeants help Airmen become the best version of themselves.


“Helping someone accomplish a goal is rewarding,” Ellis said. “Walking someone through the worst pain they’ve known to date is incredibly fulfilling.”


Ellis said his leadership position has also helped empower others.


“Representation is important,” Ellis said. “It’s harder to see when you’re not in a minority of whatever that may be. People see me in the position I’m in, and there’s something powerful for them about that. I’ve had people say, ‘Thank you.’ I’m used to seeing it. Retirees that never saw that are just excited for me to be in the position I’m in; it shows promise for them that things have changed.”


In the future, Ellis plans to continue mentoring others by pursuing a teaching career. He hopes to teach children at a formative age where they are beginning to find themselves.


“There’s a lot of adults that are not comfortable in their own skin,” Ellis said. “And I find that’s the source of a lot of people’s issues.”


Ellis said if there’s one piece of advice he has to share from his life so far, it’s to not abandon who you are.


“I don’t have to abandon my principles and strengths to grow other strengths,” Ellis said. “They make me successful right now and they’ll continue to do that. I’ve been able to succeed on my own terms and genuinely encourage others to do the same. Don’t change your message, but sometimes you gotta change your vehicle for it.”