(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

You've seen the colorful patches that adorn the shoulders of the uniforms worn by high-profile officers. Whether they're on Colin Powell, H. R. McMaster, or some other Army or Marine general, these patches stand out. They represent the units these officers served with — but who designed them?


Believe it or not, nobody in the military did. Well, no active-duty member of the military, to be precise. Instead, the designing of unit patches has been the work of 32 civilians out of Fort Belvoir, near Alexandria, Virginia, at The Institute of Heraldry, U.S. Army. This agency, often called TIOH, has been around since 1960, but military units have been using distinctive patches, flags, and symbols since 1775.

The Institute of Heraldry, U.S. Army has its own coat of arms.

(US Army)

After World War I saw an explosion in unit patches, the Army got serious about creating an official program to sort it all out. The Quartermaster General began handling the design of unit patches in 1924. Then came World War II. Not only did every division get a patch, it seemed every regiment, fighter squadron, and bomber squadron wanted one, too (remember, the Air Force didn't break away from the Army until 1947). In 1957, Congress tacked on more responsibility, putting the Army in charge of designing the seals and flags for every federal agency.

Finally, in 1960, TIOH was formed, and placed under the Adjutant General's Office. Several decades and reorganizations later, the institute now operates under the Office of the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army.

The shoulder patch for the 101st Airborne Division — The Screaming Eagles — reflects that division's name and heritage.

(U.S. Army)

Through it all, as new units have formed and old ones have faded away, TIOH has helped keep the history alive through their intricate, symbolic design work.

Learn more about what they do in the video below!