As Senior Master Sgt. Steven Bradley speaks during a resiliency lunch at the Club on Joint Base Andrews last month, the door in the back of the room slowly creaks open and a group of eager smiling faces walks in with gift in hand.
Bradley, an 11th Medical Support Squadron patient, wasn’t aware but he was about to receive his diamond signifying him as a first sergeant.
“I was shocked,” Bradley admitted. “Since I promoted outside of being a first sergeant to a senior master sergeant I thought the capability was lost. The fact an exception to policy was granted to allow me to retire as a first sergeant is a huge thing.”
The history of the notable diamond dates back to 1847 when Army first sergeants were first authorized to wear this distinction. Being a first sergeant, or first shirt, meant service members were responsible for the morale, welfare and conduct of all enlisted members in their squadron.
After relinquishing his diamond due to an unexpected illness, his leadership surprised him by reinstating it and allowing him to retire as a first sergeant.
That was an important honor because for Bradley, being a “shirt” has always been a calling.
In August 2014, he became a first sergeant and received his first diamond. Bradley strived to become a “shirt” because he enjoyed taking care of people and wanted to broaden his scope.
“When I envision what a shirt is supposed to be, I will forever think of Bradley,” said Master Sgt. Amy Carson, 48th Civil Engineer Squadron section chief and former squadron member under Bradley. “I am a stronger leader and better person because of [him].”
After discovering a lump in his armpit in January 2018, Bradley went in for testing. About a month later, he walked through a medical facility to collect his test results.
Expecting to hear about a minor issue, Bradley was shocked to hear the words “You have cancer.”
The diagnosis was stage 4 metastatic melanoma, which happens when cancer cells spread beyond the skin and regional lymph nodes to distant organs such as the liver, lungs, brain and various areas of the skin.
Just shy of 21 years in service when he received his cancer notification, Bradley was relieved of his first sergeant duties to focus on his recovery.
“I went from being in a very self-sufficient position, where I take care of myself and others to then needing to ask others for help,” Bradley said. “I realized I couldn’t accomplish tasks on my own and knew I needed to request assistance.”
Reaching out allowed Bradley to learn more about therapy and get himself involved.
“Meeting with others and working with the [Airman Medical Transition Unit] first sergeants made me feel like I had a purpose again and could help out like in my first sergeant days,” he said. “We brainstormed on how to better patients’ lives which helped me in the long run. These talks helped keep my mind busy while I helped others.”
Through the duration of his hospital stays, Bradley provided knowledge of Air Force instructions others were unfamiliar with and guided people to proper resources and offices.
While pushing through his recovery he never lost sight of others.
“Last year I went on a temporary duty assignment and met up with [Bradley] and his spouse Michelle,” Carson explained. “That prior year was extremely challenging in my professional and personal life. Even though he was not stationed with me and dealing with his life, he listened for hours and did what he always did, be a ‘shirt.’”
Bradley’s current condition is stage 4 metastatic melanoma. He still has spots of cancer throughout the upper torso. His course of treatments kept cancer from spreading to major organs, excluding his brain.
“I haven’t really gotten better per se,” said Bradley. “I’ve been undergoing immunotherapy treatment which helps boost my immune system to attack the cancer. I also go through focalized radiation treatment to take care of the metastases apparent in my brain.”
During the 22-month-long battle with his illness, Bradley had an unexpected victory when he received his diamond, allowing him to retire as a first sergeant.
“To acquire my diamond back as a senior is amazing to me,” Bradley said with a smile on his face. “This feat reminds me of everything I’ve accomplished, the camaraderie and the work that’s been put in helping to grow the future Air Force, leaders and direct people. Having the opportunity to retire with the diamond helps remind me there is hope at the end of the tunnel.”
The writer is airman 1st class with 11th Wing Public Affairs.