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Why Do Flag Patches Worn on Uniforms Sometimes Appear to be “Backwards”?

Written by
John Wesley
Published on
December 14, 2021 9:21:00 AM PST December 14, 2021 9:21:00 AM PSTth, December 14, 2021 9:21:00 AM PST

The US flag is a crucial element of our country and is to be treated with respect. As a matter of fact, there are many rules on how to properly fly a flag or wear it. For this reason the question arises, “Why do flag patches worn on uniforms sometimes appear to be “Backward”? The explanation is very logical, but we’ll need to explore some history, some of it ancient.


Never Backwards


First, we need to make it very clear, that when the U.S. Flag is correctly displayed or worn on a uniform, it is NEVER “backward”.

 

Why The Confusion?


U.S. Code Title 4, Section 7 outlines the correct manner to display the U.S. Flag. Is the flag flying from a flagpole, displayed on a wall, hanging from the middle of a ceiling, hanging over a street, worn on a uniform, or is an image of the flag printed on paper such as a certificate? Each of these have their own rules, all based on respect and honor of the U.S. Flag.


The confusion starts with the manner in which we are used to seeing the US Flag displayed. For a flag that is displayed horizontally against a wall it is required that the Union (the area of the flag with the field of stars and the blue background) be positioned, or orientated, to the top of the flag and to the observer’s LEFT (also known as “the flag’s own RIGHT”). If the term “flag’s own right” confuses you, pretend you are the flag looking back at the observer.



How we usually see the U.S. Flag displayed
(Union to observer’s Left or “Flag’s Own Right”)

 

How do You See the Flag When it is on a Flagpole?

 

But it is another matter when we observe a flag that is flying from a flagpole. The union is attached to the flagpole, and the stripes wave, flowing in the wind. Is the union on the observer’s left, or on the observer’s right? It all depends on which way the wind is blowing, and what side of the flagpole the observer is standing.



               

Flag flying from a flagpole
(directed by the wind)

 

Color-Bearer (Carrying the Flag)


A color-bearer (also known as a standard-bearer or flag-bearer) is simply defined as “a person that carries the flagor standard into battle”. The custom dates to ancient armies, including the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. In the Roman military every century, cohort, and legion had a unique standard or flag with symbols that represented that specific unit. During a battle, the standard-bearer would hold the standard high for all to see, permitting soldiers to keep a tight formation, determine the direction of the charge, and also for military commanders to see where a specific unit was located on the battlefield.

 


Roman Legion Standard-Bearer

 

 

Over the centuries the concept and tradition of the Standard-Bearer evolved into the Color-Bearer of the United States Revolutionary War (e.g. Mel Gibson film The Patriot) and on to the Civil War (e.g. e.g. Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman in the film Glory).
If you were on the sidelines, observing a Civil War battle, the flag being carried by the color-bearer would look “left” or “right” depending on which direction the soldiers were charging, or on which side of the battle you happen to be standing. But you could always count on the following: “The blue union of the flag is attached to the pole, leading the way forward in the charge, and the red and white stripes trail behind”.

                            

Left or Right? It all depends.
(What direction are they charging? Where are you standing?)

 

Uniform Patches


All the previous background information has led us to understand the principles of the correct way to display a flag, and how it looks to the observer. Those principles also apply to a flag patch that is worn on a uniform. When a member of the military wears the flag on their uniform, they become a color-bearer.


But there are two different configurations of flag patches. Some flag patches have the union to the flag’s own left, while others have the union to the flag’s own right. Which one is the correct patch to wear? It depends on which shoulder the flag patch is attached to. Is it worn on the Left shoulder or the Right shoulder? Regardless of which shoulder the patch is worn, a single rule applies. The union of the flag is always positioned forward in relation to the unform. It should remind the observer of a color-bearer.


Since the mid 1960’s US military aircrew members have been wearing flag patches on the left shoulder of their Nomex flight suits, and their flight jackets. A flag on the left shoulder will have the union on the observer’s left (the flag’s own right), which is how most of us are used to seeing the flag.

Flag Patch on Flight Suit Jacket Left Sleeve
(union to the front, or observers left)



OKANG aircrew with Navy Seal Leap Frogs
(Flag Patches on the Left Shoulders)


Much more recently, in 2005, the US Army switched uniforms from the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU)(Woodland Camouflage Pattern) and Desert Combat Uniform (DCU)(3-Color Desert Camouflage Pattern) to the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) that had the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP). A US Flag patch was not normally worn on the BDU’s or DCU’s. On the ACU it became a requirement to wear a flag patch on the right shoulder. So, the flag patches worn on the US Army ACU’s will have the union on the observers right, or the flag’s own left. As a note, in 2014 the Universal Camouflage Pattern on the ACU was replaced with the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP)(often confused with, or referred as “MultiCam”).



US Army ACU with Flag Patch on Right Shoulder

Conclusion


To sum things up, let’s finish by reminding you that the flag may sometimes seem to be “backward” when worn on unforms. But in reality, when a flag patch is properly worn, it correctly honors our nations flag with the proper respect.