There’s a saying about people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. In the U.S. Army, soldiers may wear a lot of their history there as well. That can be a downright literal interpretation. On enlisted dress uniforms, the hash-mark service stripes on the left sleeve mark off a soldier’s years of service three at a time. Other official Army badges and tabs denote everything from specializations to accomplishments.
With the advent of velcro on uniforms, soldiers even sport unofficial tabs and badges, though not during inspection. After all, if it’s not in AR 670-1, it had better not be on that uniform.
What Do Army Badges Show?
Where You’ve Been
Not only the nature of a badge but also its location can be significant to the story it tells. Worn on the left shoulder, a unit patch – or Shoulder Sleeve Insignia – tells which division or major formation a soldier is currently assigned to. Worn on the right shoulder, that same patch identifies the formation a soldier served in during a combat deployment.
Soldiers who have had tours with multiple divisions or commands can choose which combat patch to wear. Some Army units may even be authorized to wear a combat patch from a different branch. My own unit was attached to the 1st Marine Division for the invasion of Iraq. It was an honor to be authorized to wear the Guadalcanal patch.
Soldiers now wear subdued ranks on their chests on combat uniforms, but dress uniform rank is emblazoned on the sleeve as well.
And if you notice the angled service stripes on the left sleeve, you might wonder why those on the right sleeve are parallel to the cuff. Those stripes aren’t years of service, but rather each six-month period served overseas.
What You’ve Done
On the upper-left chest of an Army uniform, soldiers can wear any number of badges showing their accomplishments. These vary from the common marksmanship qualification badges earned in basic training, to the more elite. A badge may show that the wearer is qualified as a parachutist, aviator, or even as a flight surgeon.
Telling all those badges apart doesn’t come easy to the newly initiated. Though the design of the Air Assault and Parachutist Badges are unique, they may look similar without closer inspection. Get into the aviator badges, and the similarities are even stronger.
The Air Assault Badge, awarded on completion of Army Air Assault School, stands out with a helicopter at the center. The Parachutist Badge – commonly called “jump wings” – is awarded on completion of the Army Basic Airborne Course. Completion of the Jumpmaster course and a number of other qualifications can earn an upgrade, either to the Senior Parachutist Badge or to the Master Parachutist Badge.
With the advent of the Space Force, there’s even a badge for soldiers who qualify as “space professionals.”
Other accomplishments that earn a badge include completion of the Army Pathfinder School, qualifications as a combat diver, and qualification in explosive ordnance disposal.
The Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) and Combat Action Badge (CAB) are awarded for similar reasons, but to different specializations. The CIB displays a rifle backed by a wreath, whereas the CAB displays a bayonet backed by a wreath. Both are awarded for active combat service and require engagement with the enemy. The difference is in who can receive each. The CIB is only for infantry or special forces soldiers. The CAB was created in late 2001 for everyone else in the Army, from military police to admin soldiers.
Similarly, the Expert Infantryman Badge and Expert Soldier Badge have the corresponding rifle and bayonet, but no wreath. These badges are awarded for the completion of a battery of tests proving a soldier’s readiness and qualifications.
Combat medics have their own badges, the Combat Medical Badge and the Expert Field Medical Badge.
Who You Are
Army tabs are their own kind of badges and can show a soldier’s accomplishments and designation. Worn on the left shoulder over the unit patch, tabs are awarded based on meeting certain criteria. Yet, unlike other badges, some tabs can only be worn based on unit assignment.
Badges that remain with soldiers throughout their career include those awarded for completion of the Special Forces Qualification Course, the Army’s Ranger School, and the Army’s Sapper School. Other schools tabs, such as the Arctic tab and the Jungle tab, are only authorized for U.S. Army Pacific.
Other tabs, such as the Airborne tab, are worn purely based on a soldier’s unit. In an Airborne unit, even someone who isn’t jump-qualified wears the tab. The differentiation comes with whether or not the soldier is also wearing jump wings. At the same time, once soldiers leave an airborne unit, they drop the tab, but not the wings.
Similarly, soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division wear the Mountain tab while part of the division. The 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea also has a “Combined Division” tab to symbolize cooperation with the Republic of Korea Army.
The various honor guards throughout the U.S. Army also wear tabs denoting their status. The rarest of these is white lettering on a blue background and is only worn by The Old Guard.
What You Do
The final type of badges are the identification badges, which are worn over the right breast pocket. The most familiar version for any member of the Army is that worn by drill sergeants. Yet, military police, instructors, recruiters, and even Criminal Investigative Command (CID) have their own.
What Is the Rarest Military Badge?
People in the Army take pride in their badges. Even the soldier fresh out of basic training will wear that Marksmanship Badge with pride. And whether it shows years in the Army or accomplishments, the stories these badges tell are important ones.
Though not the rarest badge awarded, one badge is likely the most hallowed: the Tomb Guard of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge. The badge is awarded to the Sentinels who guard the tomb. The Society of the Honor Guard estimates that approximately 680 such badges have been awarded.
Yet the least common badge of all, understandably, is the Astronaut’s Badge. An Aviation Badge with an added insignia, the Astronaut’s Badge can also be awarded to civilians who have completed a space flight. However, those who have not previously received an Army Aviation Badge instead receive a crewmember badge.
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