• March 1, 2010
  • 19

Ask America’s 1stSgt Edition 3.

“Why are First Sergeants called TOP – CI Roller Dude always calls you TOP.”

In the old days the term Top was reserved for the top sergeant in the company. If I understand correctly this is still done in the Army. In the Marine Corps First Sergeants are no longer addressed as Top although some Master Sergeants are. I say some because referring to a MSgt in the Marine Corps as Top is a risky venture at best. It implies a sense of familiarity that you may not have with the MSgt. I know MSgts who will point out in no uncertain terms they do not spin on their heads.

On occasion a Soldier will mistakenly address me as Top. I figure it isn’t meant in disrespect so I usually let it pass. Some old time WWII Marines will still address me as Top as well. Maj Rick Spooner is an old WWII Marine who owns the Quantico restaurant The Globe & Laurel . Every time I see him he calls me Top. If you think I’m going to correct a Marine who took part in battles in Tinian, Saipan, and Okinawa you are all kinds of mistaken.

Sometimes (just not in the Marine Corps) the 1stSgt is known as the First Shirt. Now days this is primarily associated with the Air Force. One of origins of the term comes from a time when work details would remove their shirts while performing manual labor. The guy in charge of the detail would keep his shirt on since he was not doing any of the work. Thus if you were looking for who was in charge you would look for “the shirt”.I once visited a doctor who was caring for one of my Marine Sergeants. She was an Air Force Major whom I suspect had little experience dealing with Marines. I was meeting with her and my Sergeant to discuss his further treatment. At one point I made a comment and she said:”What did you say Shirt?” Out of the corner of my eye the Sergeant visibly started in his chair like an attack dog that really wanted to bite someone but hadn’t been given the command. Later he was indignant: “1stSgt, she can’t call you that! It isn’t right!” In between the growling and snapping I was able to bring him back down explaining she was just using her crazy Air Force talk and didn’t know any better.

As a general rule it is always wise to simply address Marines by their rank. Unlike the Army, Marines do not refer to all Staff Non Commissioned Officers as Sergeant. Unless you want to be flogged to death on the spot you will never ever call a Marine Sergeant “Sarge”.

Of course, it is always safe to address me as:


Semper Fi!

/ / / /


  1. Pretty sure there was no edition 3 – perhaps it’s a deliberate ploy to make sure we’re paying attention. Will there be an exam?

    My grandad was a Staff Sgt by the end of WWII but he was a REME engineer and most of his unit had previously worked with him at the factory building the tanks they were now repairing, so they called him “chief” which he never minded. One of his lads tried that with another Sergeant though and apparently it wasn’t pretty 🙂

  2. My squad leader here in AIT-land is an ex-Marine sgt (got kicked out for back problems) still adjusting to Army life. When he got here, he addressed everyone by their full rank, until he was told to address NCOs as just “sgt.” He misunderstood and accidentally called our 1SG ‘sgt.’ I think the only reason he survived is because he’s squared away. 😀

  3. Best break from TBS @ Quantico was always a steak and a beer or two at the Globe and Laurel. Rick Spooner is one of the last of “The Old Breed”. If you are in the DC area, go, eat a big bloody one, and if Maj. Spooner is around, a snappy salute is in order

  4. For those of you focused on my typographical errors I am officially titling the next Ask post as Edition 12 and am in fact NOT going to answer any questions whatsoever. So there!

    Akelamalu, since I am the only Marine 1stSgt in Bahrain you should see the list of things I am called. Mostly I’m called Sir by those without a clue what my rank might be. Next in line is MSgt or Master Guns as those two ranks are more common around here among senior Marines.

    Magoo, there are Chiefs in the Navy but I suspect in your grandad’s case the term had more to do with their familiarity with him. Was he in the Army?

    Sarge, good to hear from you! Soldiers tend not to get blasted by me for calling me Top. I know it’s not in disrespect.

    Saker, I attended Army Airborne school as a Gunnery Sgt. As a senior enlisted guy I was put in charge of one of the platoons. I introduced myself to the class like so: “I am Gunnery Sergeant Burke. Here is a quick lesson in Marine Corps customs and courtesies. I am not a Sgt nor have I been one for some time…”

  5. Thank you, A1S. I have wondered at you being called Top. I have a friend that is a Gunnery Sergeant and have watched him stiffen when someone he doesn’t know calls him Gunny. He may call himself that privately, but that doesn’t mean everyone has carte blanche to do so.

  6. Top,
    Now can you explain the Navy ranks? When I had to use some of the Sea Bees for a security team in Fallujah…I had no idea what their ranks were.

    Don’t forget, when I started in the Army, Nam was just ending and we called our First Sergeants “TOP” as a matter of respect. …but when I work, I never wear my dang rank anyway, but when anybody called me “SIR” I told them “I work for a living, don’t call me sir.”

  7. Jenny, it is generally acceptable to refer to a Gunnery Sergeant as Gunny. It is a term of endearment but again insinuates a level of familiarity the speaker may or may not have with the Gunny. Then again there are Gunnery Sgts and there are those who are The Gunny. The distinction is great.

    CI Roller, when explaining Navy ranks to my Marines (we are on a Naval base) I make sure they know what a Chief is (anchor on the collar = E7), Senior Chief (anchor + 1 star = E8), and Master Chief (anchor + 2 stars = E9). If they are sporting “crows” (and eagle with 1, 2, or 3 chevrons) it’s safe to call them Petty Officer. Everyone else I just call Sailor. They also have ranks that have to do with their MOS but it just gets confusing from there.

  8. I guess I need my backside “chewed- on” for awhile because I was following CI Roller Dude respectfull ways and have called you Top once or twice which I now understand was/is a BIG NO-NO.

    So, SIR, FIRST SARGNET, SIR, I will [meekly] stand as striaght as I can with my old sway back all the while my ex-ex-large chest shoved out, but not trying to poke you in the stomach for I’m 5’2″ and you look to be over 6′. My “quivering double rolled” chin will be tucked in as far it can but if you ask this “older than dirt” body to do push-ups then you’ve got a long, looooong wait.

    In other words, I humblely ask for your understanding and forgiveness.

    Miss Em
    Austell, Ga.

    PS…Typo errors are not just your problem exclusivly because une day I just might get these hold fingers to actually hit the keys right the forst tyme so I don’t have to comstantli re=read these thimga.

  9. It’s actually a good thing to have a lesson in military rank & etiquette – thank you for this post

    (…begins counting up the number of people I’ve used the wrong or overly familiar term with. Wonder if I can get a pass due to being a clueless Aussie – or should I just start shipping the Timtams about as apologies?)

    [clueless downunder]

  10. Pax, playing dumb won’t save you. 🙂

    Tankerbabe, the Warrant Officer thing works a little different in each service. I understand some services refer to them as “Chief”(if they are a Chief Warrant Officer). We just call them Sir and Ma’am. Except the Gunners but that has to do with their occupational specialty and it is a common mistake even among Marines to address all WOs as Gunner. They are not all Gunners and some of them need to get over it.

  11. Learned long ago as a young “Petty Ossifer Something Class” about the sensitivity of my Marine classmates to the whole rank and etiquette thing amount enlisteds. Tis a beautiful thing to have an exploitable weakness so close to the skin. bwwahahaha

  12. “Pax, playing dumb won’t save you. :-)”

    Well you’ve just scuttled my Plan B for life 🙁

    So come on – cough up a neutral postal address – I have some timtams (and possibly Mountain Thunder coffee) to send you


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