Heraldic items for Army organizations reflect history, tradition, ideals, mission, and accomplishments. Shoulder sleeve insignia and distinctive unit insignia have been designed so that each is distinctive to the organization for which approved. Both serve as identifying devices and contribute to unit cohesiveness.
While the custom of bearing various symbols on shields, helmets, and flags existed in antiquity, heraldry was not introduced until the Middle Ages. The use of heraldic devices became more prevalent with the increased use of armor and the requirements for insignia to assist in distinguishing friend from foe on the battlefield. The designs included mythological beasts, symbols commemorative of incidents of valor, and other identifying marks to which specific symbolism was ascribed. Gradually a formal system of heraldry evolved, complete with rules for design, use, and display.
The currently authorized embroidered shoulder sleeve insignia had their origin during World War I . They serve the same purpose as the Corps symbols (badges) in use during the Civil War and the War with Spain. The Corps badges were of simple design; most could be cut from a single piece of cloth, e.g., a four-leaf clover, a heart, a star, a winged horsefoot, a caltrop, and a spearhead. Such devices were easily remembered and readily identified. Not only were they worn by the soldiers on their headgear, but also they were incorporated in the organizations' flags.
The first shoulder sleeve insignia is believed to have been worn by the men of the 81st Division during World War I. On their voyage to France they adopted as their insignia the figure of a wildcat that was in use as a distinctive marking for the division's equipment. Wear of the insignia was officially approved October 19, 1918, by a telegram from the Adjutant General, American Expeditionary Forces, to the division's commanding general. Insignia for other organizations of the American Expeditionary Forces were later authorized and designs were officially approved. Designs varied greatly. Many had their origin in designs already in use for organizational and equipment markings; others were based on monograms and geometric figures alluding to designations. Symbols associated with traditions, geographical locations, and missions of the organizations were also in some designs.
Since World War I, the authorization of shoulder sleeve insignia has expanded along with organizational and other changes within the Army. Most soldiers now wear shoulder sleeve insignia. Many designs are more elaborate than those of World War I. The more complex designs came into being because of an increase in the number of authorized insignia and the availability of embroidery machinery for production of various types of textile insignia. During the Vietnam era the policy governing the wear of subdued insignia as well as full-color items was established.
Distinctive insignia of metal and enamel are authorized for those organizations authorized shoulder sleeve insignia. These insignia may be traced to the use
of metal and enamel badges authorized to be worn instead of the cloth badges during the War with Spain. The type of distinctive insignia currently in use was first authorized during the 1920s for regiments and some other units. As in the case of shoulder sleeve insignia the authorization was expanded as changes in organization of the Army took place. The designs are based on symbols reflecting the organization's lineage, battle honors, traditions, and mission. Usually they incorporate the organization's motto, which is often of an idealistic nature.
Shoulder sleeve and distinctive insignia worn on the uniform and the
distinguishing flags incorporating the shoulder sleeve insignia designs
are highly visible items of identification. They are significant factors
in Army esprit de corps.