The top 10 Army unit patches, from ‘Sidewinders’ to PSYOPS

Every unit patch — officially the “shoulder sleeve insignia” — has a storied history behind it. It’s the hallmark of your newfound home in the Army and defines the mission you’re been trained to do. Retire that big Army star patch from basic with a badboy of a patch. You won’t regret it. 

To be sure, Army unit patches vary greatly. Some patches are dull, while others are badass. In the best of them, their design reflects the unit’s mission and history. And unit patches mean different things on different shoulders: soldiers wear their current unit patch on their left shoulder, while the right shoulder is for a so-called “combat patch” — technically the Former War Time Service patch — which indicates a unit with which the soldier has deployed to a combat zone.

The unit patch can also be a unifying factor. Aaron Schmidt, a psychological operations reservist assigned to the 301st Tactical Psychological Operations Company (Airborne), is well versed in psychological operations. 

“Incorporating a symbology that expresses values is an important step for unit cohesion,” Schmidt said. “If you’re defining unit cohesion, will to fight, you know, all those kinds of things, your definition would be incomplete if you didn’t include some of that symbology integral to the unit, whether it’s formal or informal.”

PSYOP Spooky patch (both authorized and informal)

Active Duty photo
An informal set of PSYOP unit patches along with the official PSYOP unit patch on the far right. (Photos courtesy of Aaron Schmidt, 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne), and U.S. Army/Sgt. Austin Berner. Task & Purpose composite image.)

The patches worn by psychological operations troops, or PSYOPS, are examples of how many units embrace and wear both authorized and informal unit patches. Authorized patches are officially endorsed as part of an Army uniform and represent the unit in official business. Informal patches, though, are generally created from the ground up, by troops who want to celebrate a particular heritage or identity of a unit.

The dark green authorized patch of U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) unit has a vertical sword in the middle, representing the military nature of the command, and two lightning bolts that represent the “speed of modern electronic communications employed by Civil Affairs and PSYOP soldiers. 

The formal unit patch is pretty cool, but their informal unit patches are legendary. They pay tribute to the original identity of PSYOPS troops as a “ghost army,” the origin point of the modern-day U.S. Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command. 

There isn’t much out there that tops the idea of slipping into an area, shaping behavioral and societal norms, and slipping back out. In other words, the “ghost in the machine” that influences without ever being seen.

Aaron Schmidt, 4th Psychological Operations Group, is one of the masterminds behind one of those informal patches. He designed it while assigned to a project under CENTCOM. First, he wanted to work in the original “ghost in the machine” character from informal patches of the Cold War, which showed a ghost over Europe. He combined that original idea with the CENTCOM logo to give it a PSYOP flavor. He shared it with people he worked with, and now, a year later, it’s still making the rounds within the rank and file and on social media.

“I’ve seen it used in a couple of places, like some slide-ology and some challenge coins, that kind of thing. So it’s cool to see it living and propagate a little bit,” Schmidt said. In some ways, he said, the patch is its own successful PSYOP. “As a PSYOPer myself, watching a product that you put out make those moves is a fun thing to see.”

194th Glider Infantry Regiment Patch 

Active Duty photo
The 194th Glider Infantry Regiment Patch is unique and has an awesome design. (U.S. Army image)

The 194th Glider Infantry Regiment Patch is a historical release, tied to the long-retired glider infantry units of World War II. But the patch is a classic, with a glider emerging from the clouds with a horizontal lightning bolt on its side. 

The unit patch depicts the inherently deadly job of the glider infantryman. The glider infantry mission was one of the most dangerous of its time. Every glider mission carried a high probability of heavy casualties because of the crash landing or the withering enemy fire that could light up slow-moving, thin-skinned gliders as they approached.  

Anyone with this patch combined with combat-related badges and awards sent a clear message: the soldier wearing it all was both lucky and about as badass as they come. The 194th GIR took part in historical WWII missions like the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity. However, the unit was inactivated at Camp Myles in Standish, Massachusetts, on Sept. 14, 1945. 

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101st Airborne Division ‘Screaming Eagle’ patch

Active Duty photo
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower speaking to 1st Lt. Wallace Strobel of Company E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division on the eve of D-Day, June 5, 1944. (Library of Congress cropped photo)

The screaming eagle, affectionately referred to as “Old Abe,” is the focal point of the 101st Airborne Division’s unit patch — it’s about as freedom-inspiring as it gets. The screaming eagle is overlaid on a black shield, which pays homage to the history of the patch symbology. 

Though the bald eagle is a national emblem, the angry eagle on the 101st patch is based on a real bird who had genuine combat chops. Old Abe was the mascot for Company C, 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment — nicknamed the Eau Claire Eagles — during the Civil War. Old Abe rode into battle while perched on a black shield attached to a wooden pole.

Old Abe even had a bounty on his head. Seeing the large bald eagle on its perch during the battle of Corinth, Mississippi, Confederate General Sterling Price thundered that “that bird must be captured or killed at all hazards, I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags.”

In 1921, Old Abe’s image was adopted by the 101st Airborne Division. The overall imagery of Old Abe serves as a representation of both airborne and air assault combat capabilities. The 101st have fought in every major war since their inception, from jumping into Normandy on D-Day to decades of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Special Forces arrowhead patch

A U.S. Army Green Beret, assigned to 20th Special Forces Group, Alabama Natonal Guard, displys his Unit patch and tabs while being rigged up into his MC-6 parachute at Northeast Alabama Regional Airport, Gadsden, Alabama, Jan. 11, 2019. This Soldier is jumping to be proficent paratroopers and to stay current in their Airborne duties. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ausitn Berner)
A U.S. Army Green Beret, assigned to 20th Special Forces Group, Alabama Natonal Guard, getting rigged up into his MC-6 parachute at Northeast Alabama Regional Airport, Gadsden, Alabama, Jan. 11, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. Austin Berner)

The Special Forces arrowhead unit patch is one of the most recognized patches in the U.S. Army. The arrowhead alludes to the warfare skills of Native Americans, whose approach to living off the land remains a staple of Special Forces training. 

The dagger symbolizes the unconventional nature of the Green Beret mission. The three lightning flashes represent SF’s ability to strike rapidly by air, water, or land.

The patch was first authorized on Aug. 22, 1955, after Capt. John Frye of the 77th SFG created the design and submitted it for consideration as the SF unit patch. On Nov. 20, 1958, the addition of the “airborne” tab above the unit patch was authorized, and the patch has remained the standard ever since. 

XVIII Airborne Corps Dragon patch

Active Duty photo
Sgt. 1st Class John Oliverio, a senior human resource non-commissioned officer, assigned to 1/201st Field Artillery, West Virginia Army Guard, wears his Desert Storm combat patch proudly. Oliverio was assigned to the 201st but attached to the 18th Airborne Corps and fondly remembers the welcome home celebration his unit received upon their return. (U.S. Army photo/Sgt. 1st Class Debra Richardson)

Look: It’s got a fucken dragon on it. The XVIII Airborne Corps oversees several of the Army’s frontline infantry and rapid response units like the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions. The patch was originally approved on Feb. 15, 1944. The Airborne Tab was added as part of the patch on May 1, 1950.

The 18th Airborne Corps was activated during January 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana. The dragon-inspired patch made its debut on Aug. 25, 1944, and has remained the same ever since. The dragon head symbolizes the cunning nature, endurance, and ferocity of the mythical creature and its shared parallels with the 18th Airborne Corps.

10th Mountain Division patch

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Thomas, operations noncommisioned officer in charge, 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, Task Force Dagger, from Ville Platte, La., places a 10th Mountain Division Patch on the right shoulder of Pfc. Michelle Garcia, a human resources specialist with 4th BSTB from Belton, Texas, during the battalion's deployment patch ceremony at Forward Operating Base Fenty Aug. 17, 2013. Soldiers earn the right to wear an organization's patch on their right shoulder when they serve with that unit in combat. TF Dagger is part of 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, based out of Fort Polk, La. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Anna Simms, Task Force Patriot)
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Thomas, operations noncommisioned officer in charge, 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, Task Force Dagger, from Ville Platte, La., places a 10th Mountain Division Patch on the right shoulder of Pfc. Michelle Garcia, a human resources specialist with 4th BSTB from Belton, Texas, during the battalion’s deployment patch ceremony at Forward Operating Base Fenty on Aug. 17, 2013. (U.S. Army Photo/Sgt. Anna Simms)

Informally called the powder keg patch, it was first authorized when the unit was redesignated as the 10th Mountain Division on Nov. 6, 1944. The powder keg shape of the main patch represents the “explosive power of the division,” while the crossed bayonets represent the primary Infantry mission of the division

If you thought the patch was an image of crossed skis because of the unit’s mountain warfare mission, you aren’t alone. WWII units in the 10th Mountain Division’s lineage used to wear crossed ski pin. The mountain infantry was well known for their combat ski capabilities. Alumni of the unit are said to have gone on to develop and open at least 62 ski areas.

The mountain tab represents the division’s specialty of mountain warfare. The division Afghanistan to adapt lessons learned during the War on Terror to the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School to update tactics and practices. 

The 10th Mountain Division has served in campaigns from WWII to modern conflicts and was one of the first conventional units sent to Afghanistan in 2001. 

“Engage the Hot Spot” — C Co. 1-4 Aviation Regiment

Active Duty photo
An earlier version (left) and a later version (right) of the infamous “engage the hot spot” unit patch that C Co., 1st Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment soldiers wore. (Photos courtesy of Aaron Beard. Task & Purpose composite image)

This patch made the rare jump from informal patch to semi-official during one deployment. It began when troops in the 1st Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment.

Aaron Beard, who deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq, in 2005 with the 1/4, loved the unit patch. 

“Some would call us the sock puppets because of the poorly designed snake, but I think we wore it as a badge of honor. I think the innuendo ‘engage the hot spot’ was the best part,” Beard said. Officially, the motto referred to the heat signature that an Apache helicopter pilot sees while using the forward-looking infrared, better known as FLIR.

“Engaging the hot spot in terms of FLIR seems innocent enough, but most of us were immature 20-something-year-olds,” said Bear. “Command caught on, or someone complained sometime in 2006 because we had to refrain for a short time from wearing the patch.”

The new version of the “engage the hot spot” patch was back in action a short while after it was banned.

2nd Armored Division — “Hell on Wheels”

Active Duty photo
The 2nd Armored Division “Hell on Wheels” unit patch. (Wikimedia commons image)

We’ve talked about dragons, engaging the hot spot, and other motivational slogans behind unit patches, but we haven’t hit on armor. The 2nd Armored Division has one of the best armor unit patches in the game. 

The combination of the cannon, tank tracks, the lightning flash, and the motto “Hell on Wheels” is a basket full of awesome. Though the unit has been inactivated with elements repurposed to other units, this patch dates back to WWII and combines some cool symbols. 

The tank track represents mobility and armor protection. The cannon symbolizes firepower, and the red lightning bolt represents shock action. Hell on Wheels was a fitting motto for the armored division. 

They kicked ass in North Africa during Operation Torch and fought against Erwin Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps; later, the armored division wiped the floor with one of the most elite SS armored divisions in the nazi regime. Later, they destroyed hundreds of enemy armored vehicles during the Gulf War. 

1st Space Brigade

Active Duty photo
Though it’s not a picture of their actual patch, the unit patch emblem along with their motto of “First in space, second to none” is about as cool as it gets. (1st Space Brigade photo/Facebook)

Space rangers? Not quite, but these guys are pretty close to the comms team for Buzz Lightyear and his intergalactic missions. The 1st Space Bridgade’s unit patch was authorized on Jan. 31, 2006. 

A polestar, a symbol of Army satellites used for navigation, is combined with an eagle representing freedom and the constant vigilance required to safeguard it and a black background representing deep space. A pheon with orbital paths over a demi-globe represents worldwide intelligence gathering, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance, providing early warning, and navigation missions. 

A red triangle connotes communication between satellites and soldiers in the field, a unique portion of the 1st Space Brigade. In 2013, the Space Brigade was honored with the Army Superior Unit award for its response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and the calamity at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant Complex.

3d Armored Cavalry Bugle Patch 

Active Duty photo
The 3d Armored Cavalry unit patch is one of the longest standing unit patches in U.S. military history. (Wikimedia commons image)

The 3d Armored Cavalry unit patch is one of the longest-standing units in U.S. military history. It was first organized in 1846 as an elite Mounted Riflemen Regiment, an early example of the combined mobility of the cavalry horse with the shock of heavy infantry, along with the long-range adequate firepower of the new rifled muskets used at the time.

The trumpet, or hunter’s horn, was the traditional, universal symbol of all mounted infantry regiments in Western armies and represents the Regiment’s original designation. The inscription, “3 Brave Rifles,” is the Regiment’s number and motto. 

The green and yellow colors symbolize the original branch colors used by the Regiment of Mounted Rifles from 1846 to 1861. The grey letter color and the numeral “3” represent the color of steel and refer to the motto, “Blood and Steel.”

This patch doesn’t scream super ninja special operations soldier, but it demands respect due to its longstanding place in the history of the American military.

There’s a wide spread of Army unit patches in this story, but let us know if we missed any in the comments. 

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