James King’s article “The Power of the Patch” was an interesting intellectual foray into unit patches and the value we give them. Unit patches, especially those “Right Shoulder Sleeve Insignia,” more commonly known as “Combat Patches” awarded for service in a combat theater, possess strong social power within the tribal Army culture. MAJ King could have delved deeper into why we place such value and power into an insignia, and in effect, how that has become a branded organizational identity. Because of this oversight, MAJ King concludes that National Guard unit patches are less worthy than Active Component unit patches merely because they are less broadly known.
Leaders at all levels must teach the history of their unit and its patch. Many Active Component units, especially within the combat arms community, take immense pride (and rightly so) in the history of those who walked before them. Many units have dedicated museums to their history, such as the 82nd Airborne Museum at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. The unit history is a major source of unit pride and spirit de corps, and it exists within National Guard units as well. In more recognized units in the National Guard, such as 29th Infantry Division, best known in public culture for their appearance in movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” and the “The Longest Day” (which highlighted not only the 29th Division, but also the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions as well), families often serve in the same company or battalion, generations apart.
When deployed with the 29th Infantry Division Headquarters to Afghanistan in 2010, a Colonel was brought to tears after receiving his combat patch, for as he later explained, “My father was awarded this patch in Normandy. I have waited my entire career to have this opportunity. It means everything to me.” This personal connection meant more than any amount of perceived “patch prestige.” In addition, many National Guard units have had legendary leaders, such as General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded New York’s 42nd Infantry Division in World War One and General Omar Bradley, who commanded Pennsylvania’s 28th Infantry Division in World War Two.
We mustn’t assume that a hierarchy of patches, crests, or mottos is desirable, or can even be readily established.
Unit patches greatly contribute to that identity because they link present service with historical service. The patch acts as a bridge between those who sacrificed and served before us and our current generation of soldiers. Each unit patch is unique, as is their history, and their organizational identity, which is often shaped over decades. The organizational identity of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, with history stretching back to the Mexican-American War and it’s “Brave Rifles” courtesy, is far different that the 75th Ranger Regiment.
The National Guard has its own distinct reservoirs of unit pride, such as the infantrymen of the 76th IBCT of the Indiana Army National Guard, who possess great pride both for their repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their distinction as one of few Guard units that served in Vietnam (the Indiana Rangers). It is interesting to note that the Army’s new Associate Unit program is going to act in both ways – while there will be Army National Guard battalions donning the unit patches of Active Component units, there will also be Active Component battalions wearing the unit patches of Army National Guard units. This is an immense culture hurdle to overcome, and the leadership of the Army should be commended for this initiative as it truly will develop a “Total Army” over time. It also should finally eliminate the odious nature of the last fifteen years of deployments, where Reserve Component units would have little contact with their Active Component counterparts until mobilized and deployed into a combat theater.
The unit patch is a single indicator of a soldier’s service within the Army. But the power and value that has been placed within that patch is unique, developed over decades if not centuries from shared experience, communal ties, organizational identity, espirit de corps, and the unit’s history. Many National Guard units have immense pride in their patches, with unit histories reaching back into the early Colonial years in the mid-17th Century. The communal nature of the National Guard, with generations of families serving in the same units, is a massive benefit to the nation. The weight of history and community is strong within National Guard units, and their unit patches help identify these soldiers as equally as any within the Active Component.
What mustn’t be forgotten during this period of coming together is that units are more than the sequence of letters and numbers that comprise their unit identification code. They are more even than the flesh-and-bone soldiers that stand before their commander in formation. Units exist in both the past and present, a collection of legends and soldiers whose story can’t be subordinated in the mistaken belief that some units’ patches and histories are somehow more desirable than others. Can two units’ battles fought and campaigns won be quantified? Certainly. But what cannot be reduced to a stat sheet are their vital essences, the passion with which they fought for their common purpose, or the magnitude of sacrifices made by their families. This is why we mustn’t assume that a hierarchy of patches, crests, or mottos is desirable, or can even be readily established. Unit pride is healthy. But a “battle of the brands” is anathema to the Total Force concept.
[Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Courtney Witt. Texas Army National Guard soldiers from the 36th Infantry Division receive combat patches while serving in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.]