Military patch collection a labor of love for Smith, Aircrew Life Support

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The Kentucky Air National Guard’s outgoing state command chief master sergeant, Chief Master Sgt. James Smith, started collecting a wide-ranging assortment of military unit patches more than 30 years ago. The collection, which is displayed in the 123rd Airlift Wing Operations Building in Louisville, Ky., has grown to 3001 patches and is believed to be the largest such display in the world. Smith is retiring from military service in ceremony to be held July 12, 2014, at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Joshua Horton)

By Senior Airman Joshua Horton, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Chief Master Sgt. James Smith struggles to collect his thoughts as he gazes at thousands of military patches lining the walls of the 123rd Airlift Wing Operations Building.

“There are a lot of memories in here,” he finally says, looking over a collection that covers every inch of wall space in one room of the Aircrew Flight Equipment Section and spills into another. “It isn’t so much the patch, but the people who gave us these patches. There are a lot of people I remember.”

Smith, who will retire today as the Kentucky Air National Guard’s state command chief master sergeant, started the collection more than 30 years ago. It is believed to be the largest displayed collection of military patches in the world.

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A collection of military unit patches at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., is believed to be the largest such display in the world. Started more than 30 years ago, the collection includes examples from every branch of the armed services, the U.S. Space Program and several foreign military units. Curators added the 3001st patch in the summer of 2014. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

“A lot of them are unit patches, which means that they are directly related to a unit,” Smith says. “Some of them are just commemorative patches that people wore — morale patches or things like that. There are also a number of patches that were associated with pilot-training classes that made up their own patch, as all pilot classes do.”

Master Sgt. Del Brumbaugh, an aircrew flight equipment technician, says the collection is “a conglomeration of any military facet,” including every branch of the armed services and the U.S. space program. “It’s all services, and it’s multinational,” adds Brumbaugh, who has been a large contributor to the display.

The collection began with the nominal idea of placing a single patch on the wall.

“It started in 1982,” Smith recalls. “At the time, I worked in the life support section with my brother. We went to Denmark, and they gave everybody a patch. I just somehow stuck in on the wall. Through time, we’ve had literally hundreds of people contribute to the collection.”

As the collection grew, Smith and other curators created a set of guidelines for new accessions.

“We tried to establish some ground rules for collecting the patches,” Smith says. “The number one rule is that we never pay for any patches. We trade for them. We might barter in some way, or people just donate them to us.

“Each patch is different,” Smith says. “That’s another one of the rules. We have tried in a lot of ways over the years to catalogue these patches. Some of them that have unit designations are easy, but some of them that are just a picture of something make it difficult to catalogue them. What we decided to do is put them together just by visual recognition. It may say the same thing and be the same unit, but there is a visual difference in each patch. “

Brumbaugh, who recently contributed the 3,001st patch to the collection, says the project has now become a passion of his own.

“There are just some really awesome patches out there,” Brumbaugh says. “Some of them are a little off-color, no two are alike, and some of them really speak to the unit’s history and mission. Every patch has a story. There are a lot of units that harbored my blood, sweat and tears. The good times, the bad times, the good deployments and the rough parts — there are patches here that reflect that.”

“I made a comment to Chief Smith,” Brumbaugh says. “I said, ‘Before you retire, we’ll break 3,000 patches.’ It’s a patch I gave up out of my own personal collection. I’m absolutely humbled by the amount of time that it took us to get to this point. It’s an absolute labor of love from Chief Smith. He’s the ultimate curator of this. We have him to thank for what we have here.”

Smith’s retirement ceremony is scheduled today in the Base Annex.

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