WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — Longstanding military conventions, often overlooked despite their significance, were the topic of a recent history-focused lunch-and-learn lecture at Air Force Materiel Command headquarters.
Since early recorded history, warring tribes often carried banners or flags marked with emblems to represent factions and motivate their warriors to fight for the cause. It is to this historical tradition that we can trace the evolution of military emblems and patches, said AFMC historian Jack Waid, during an in-depth look at the relevance and importance of heraldic symbols to airpower today.
“Organizations use visible, enduring symbols to promote spirit de corps, morale and a sense of heritage,” said Waid. “Air Force heraldry in the form of emblems and subsequently patches give Airmen a connection to the past and the motivation to live up to the proud lineage from which they come.”
As the Air Force begins transitioning from the current Airman Battle Uniform to the Operational Camouflage Pattern, there is a renewed focus on emblems and patches across Air Force units, said Waid, as Airmen will once again be able to wear unit patches on their sleeves. Patch wear was phased out when the ABU was deployed in 2007.
“Since ABUs did not authorize the wearing of patches, as new units were established, emblems became second thought,” said Waid. “Now that patches are again authorized, units with emblems are scrambling to put together packages so they can convert these to patches for wear. It’s keeping us busy.”
A key point that units need to understand, said Waid, is that just because a unit has an emblem, it does not automatically mean that they are authorized a patch to wear.
“The AFI (Air Force Instruction) clearly defines what is and is not a unit. Major Commands, centers, wings, groups and squadrons are units, but directorates, divisions, branches, detachments and operating locations are not,” said Waid. “Units have an official lineage and history, and it is the lineage that determines eligibility for a unique emblem and patch design.”
Emblems and patches are completely separate entities maintained by different Air Force offices as well.
“Most people think an emblem is a patch and a patch is an emblem; this is incorrect. Our office deals with emblems, but once it is converted to cloth to become a patch, it becomes the property of the A1 (Office of Personnel) uniform office,” said Waid. “A unit’s history and lineage goes with an emblem whereas a patch is a wearable symbol of pride, history, warrior spirit and honor.”
With more than 311 units across AFMC and nearly two-thirds either lacking an emblem or possessing one that does not meet Air Force standards, the history office is working diligently to manage the internal OCP conversion workload in conjunction with The Institute of Heraldry and Air Force Office of Personnel while protecting unit lineage and honors. TIOH has a prioritized unit list for emblem to patch conversions, with units at bases receiving the OCP uniforms first at the top.
For the initial uniform roll-out, Air Force major commands, centers and wings will see patches first, with groups and squadrons a possibility in the future.
“It is important to make sure the time-honored Air Force unit patch returns to the uniform properly so that units can display their heritage with pride,” Waid said.
AFMC organizations can contact their Wing or Center history offices with specific questions regarding their unit emblem as well as patch authorization. AFMC History Office processes official heraldry requests through the Air Force Historical Research Agency in conjunction with TIOH.
Specific Air Force guidance can be found in AFI 84-101, Historical Products, Services and Requirement and AFI 84-105, Organizational Lineage, Honors and Heraldry.