Patches are such a fundamental part of military culture that it can be hard to remove it from your understanding of what the military is.
But its origins aren’t nearly as flamboyant as they may seem. The US Navy began employing patches that helped designate the rating and ranking of soldiers out in the field all the way back in the Revolutionary War, but the US Army wouldn’t start using them formally until World War II.
The Origins of the Military Patch
But even before the days of automated embroidery, patches served a valuable purpose for soldiers. Mothers and wives would sew personalized patches for soldiers leaving for war so they could be identified in the wake of a battle.
Patches would become a critical part of the military in World War I thanks to the automation that came part and parcel with the Industrial Revolution.
By the time World War II came around, every major unit in all the core military branches had their own insignia, and a badge was as much a way to identify yourself with your brothers in arms as it was a way to identify a soldier in the field of combat.
In fact, the shorthand of these patches became so ubiquitous that the Navy would regularly mix up what badges different units wore. That way, command could keep veiled the exact missions and objectives of units that might be captured or killers.
Military Patches Today
Today you won’t find a military unit that doesn’t have its own unique coat of arms. It’s a way for soldiers to find a sense of kinship with their unit but also a way for soldiers to get a sense of personality from other enlisted men and women they may not know.
In the Navy, the strict focus on rank and rating provides a straight-laced view of another’s competencies. In the U.S. Army and Marines, the art of the badge is often more evocative if not as directly informative.
Today, the patch is a requirement for all soldiers, and it’s become such an important part of the culture that there are multiple versions for different situations.
The traditional SSI (or shoulder sleeve insignia) provides a quick view of a soldier’s role within the hierarchy. An SSI worn on the left sleeve is typically a sign of active service, while one displayed on the upper right sleeve indicates a retired member of the military.
To account for the concern that a bright and vibrant patch could make soldiers more vulnerable in the field of war, the military has been conscientious about how battle patches are worn. For a while, what’s known as a subdued battle dress was employed by the Army. These patches used camo-appropriate color schemes to retain their sense of readability and personality without sacrificing the possibility for concealment.
These battle dress designs are periodically updated over time. Currently, any major brigade in the military is going to have its own dedicated SSI color scheme. Outside of the SSI, most brigades also have their own patch for use outside of the field of combat operations.
They tend to be colorful and expressive of the brigade’s history, and these patches can vary wildly in terms of size, shape, color, and style.
Patches may have become incorporated as a standard component of military operations, but these artifacts continue to have their own unique sense of identity. Men and women going into the field of battle are understandably concerned about their legacy, and a US Army patch allows them to descend into hell with the protection of a coat of arms at their defense.