One of the first things you notice upon seeing a member of the U.S. military is that their uniform is adorned in a variety of patches. These patches are sewn across the front and on both shoulders, and come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. But what do the patches on military uniforms mean? To better understand these important identifiers on a military uniform, WizardPins created a diagram that breaks down each patch’s meaning. We focused on the patches that are worn on a Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), which is worn by armed forces during active duty and on combat missions. Our diagram includes examples of each of the different types of patches that can be found on uniforms across all branches of the military. Some of the military patches you’ll learn more about are Combat and Special Skills Badges, Shoulder Sleeve Insignias, and even why service members wear a reverse flag patch on one of their shoulders.
What Are The Branches of the Military?
The 6 branches of military that make up the U.S. armed forces are the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Space Force. Each of the different branches of military protects the United States by either land, sea, air, or space; and each branch has specific goals and operations they undertake to do so. The Space Force military branch is the newest one and was established at the end of 2019.
The Branch Tape is a patch worn above the front left pocket of a combat uniform and it identifies to which of the different military branches the service member belongs. Its simple style mirrors that of the Name Tape patch which sits above the front right pocket and displays their last name. The large capital letters used on the Branch and Name tapes are to be able to quickly identify the service member and their military branch while in the field. These are two of the most basic military patches that can be found on a uniform, along with a rank patch to be able to quickly identify how the service member should be addressed.
When Did Service Members Start Wearing Patches On Their Uniform?
Military patches didn’t become a standard part of the U.S. military uniform until World War I. Army patches first became popular when the Army’s 81st Infantry Division wore the first shoulder patch representing their unit. Their insignia was a wildcat on an olive green background. Other Army units were then ordered to follow suit with their own unit patches with a unique insignia embroidered onto it. Thus, the Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI) was born and has become a staple on the Army uniform and other military uniforms ever since.
The Shoulder Sleeve Insignia is worn on the left shoulder to represent the service member’s current unit, while the right shoulder is reserved for the Shoulder Sleeve Insignia — Former Wartime Service (SSI-FWTS), also known as the Combat patch. The SSI-FWTS is a military patch that should be worn with pride as it shows that the soldier put their life on the line to protect their country in a combat zone. Army combat patches are only awarded to those who were in active combat operations and include the insignia of the unit that the soldier served in combat with.
Read on to learn more about the patch meaning behind all of the badges and insignias worn by different branches of the military, as well as all of the patches worn across the U.S. military ranks.
Worn above the right breast plate, this patch includes the service member’s last name, making it easier to identify them in the field.
Worn above the left breast plate, this patch identifies the U.S. military branch that the service member is serving in.
Flag Patch and Reverse Flag Patch
Flag patches are worn on both shoulders to remind service members of what they are fighting for. The flag on the right shoulder is reversed to give the effect of a flag blowing in the breeze as the service member moves forward, adhering to the regulation that the star field always faces forward. The flag patch was originally required to be red, white, and blue, but an update to the Army Battle Dress Uniform replaced them with muted colors to remain camouflaged.
Worn in the middle of the chest, this patch identifies the military ranking of the service member within their specific branch of the military. E-1 is the lowest of the military ranks, normally only held by new recruits while at basic training, and they do not wear a rank patch on their uniform. The other ranks E-2 through E-9 have specific designs based on their rank in order to be able to quickly identify and correctly address another service member. You can find the full set of rank patches in the military ranks chart included in the diagram.
Unit Patch/Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI)
Military unit patches are worn on the left shoulder, the insignia on the patch represents the brigade or division the service member is currently assigned to. U.S. Army patches are unique in that all Army soldiers are required to wear U.S. Army unit patches as part of their uniform.
Combat Patch/Shoulder Sleeve Insignia — Former Wartime Service (SSI-FWTS)
Worn on the right shoulder, this patch represents the unit the service member served in during combat operations. If they have served in combat zones multiple times with different units, they can choose which unit patch to display on their right shoulder.
The Shoulder Sleeve Insignias of the following military units were included in our diagram:
- U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division
- U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division
- 1st Marine Brigade
- 1st Battalion 9th Marines
- Navy River Division 532
- U.S. Coast Guard Port Security Unit 307
- U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command
- U.S. Space Force Space Operations Command
Duty Tabs are worn on the left shoulder above the SSI, duty tabs are used to display the special skills of an individual and/or their unit.
- Individual Tabs are earned by a service member through a qualification course such as Special Forces, Ranger, or Sapper. Individual tabs can also be earned through competitions such as the President’s Hundred.
- Unit Designation Tabs are worn just above the SSI to identify that specific unit’s special skill or major mission; these tabs will generally have something like Airborne, Mountain, Jungle, or Honor Guard written out on them.
Special Skills Badges are patches worn on the upper left chest above the branch tab to show the special skills a service member has based on the school they completed. The most common special skills badges are:
- Air Assault
Combat Badges were awarded to soldiers who were present and actively engaging or being engaged by the enemy in active ground combat, they are worn above the Special Skills Badges.
- Combat Infantryman Badge — Awarded to Infantry and Special Forces soldiers
- Combat Action Badge — Awarded to soldiers who were not in Infantry or Special Forces
- Combat Medical Badge — Awarded to those who provided medical support while the unit was engaged in combat.
Identification Badge is an insignia worn by service members with special duties, which can be permanently awarded if they are performed successfully. It is worn centered on the right front pocket.
- Drill Sergeant
- Military Horseman
Service Stripes are worn on the bottom cuff of formal uniforms to show the number of years as a service member. The U.S. Army awards one service stripe for every three years of service, while the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps award one service stripe for every four years of service. The Air Force and Space Force do not award service stripes.
- Army members earn one service stripe for every 3 years of service, they are worn on the left cuff and the overseas service stripe is worn on the right cuff. The Army service stripes are gold with a black border
- Marine Corps members earn one service stripe for every 4 years of service, they are worn on both sleeve cuffs. The Marine Corps service stripes are gold with a red border.
- Navy members earn one service stripe for every 4 years of service, they are worn on the left cuff. The Navy’s service stripes are red with a black border, although gold service stripes are awarded after 12 years of service.
- Coast Guard members earn one service stripe for every 4 years of service, they are worn on the left cuff. Coast Guard service stripes are red with a navy blue border for E-1 to E-6 ranks in the military or gold for E-7 to E-9 ranks.