Culture

The Army’s 10 best scare badges, ranked

Anyone with this chest lettuce has stories to tell.
Joshua Skovlund Avatar
A stack of skill badges on a Army soldier's uniform.
Badass alert. This soldier is Skilled in combat as an infantryman, static and freefall parchute operations, air assault operations, and space operations.(creative commons/Wikimedia)

You’re in the checkout line at the shoppette on base, just picking up a few cans of energy drinks to get you through the day. Then you see it. You can’t help but look. Some super-soldier walks in looking like a third-world dictator with how many skill badges they have stacked on their uniform. So. Much. Chest lettuce, you think. Then they look right at you as if to say, hey, my eyes are up here. 

But some skill badges are just so damn cool that you can’t help but look. They are something to aspire to; not because of what they look like on a uniform, but what they represent: tactical proficiency, excellence in your craft as a warfighter, and even the spirit of adventure.

Whether you are in the process of joining or you’ve been in for years, these scare badges, cool guy badges — whatever you want to call them — are available to almost everyone (a few of them are no longer in use). But it’s not as simple as saying, ‘Hey, I want to attend that training.’ Just getting the slot to attend these courses can be daunting, never mind meeting the standard to pass and earning the right to wear the bling.

Though other badges exist outside of what’s covered below, we narrowed our list down to 10 and ranked them based on what it takes to earn them, how unique their design is, and how rare they are to see. Let us know what you think in the comments!

Glider badge

Shadow box display including a Glider Badge.
A glider infantry shadow box sits on a table during the Wings Over Whiteman airshow on June 15, 2019, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. The box included a model of the C-47 Skytrain, the aircraft that often pulled the CG-4A WACO glider, a photo of the glider, unit patches and badges for both airborne and glider infantry along with other items. (Airman 1st Class Parker J. McCauley/U.S. Air Force)

If you see someone walking around with this bad boy on, they’re either stolen valor or the baddest dude you’ve ever met. To be authorized to wear the glider badge, a soldier had to be assigned to a glider unit and participate in at least one glider crash landing into enemy-held territory. 

Glider combat missions haven’t happened since World War II, and the badge is no longer authorized to be awarded. The glider badge was first announced by the War Department Circular No. 220 on June 2, 1944, but the first glider combat mission took place almost a year before, in July 1943, when gliders were implemented in the invasion of Sicily. A small percentage of the 137 gliders reached their pre-determined landing zone, and several were lost at sea. 

Only a few days after the glider badge was announced, hundreds of gliders deployed behind enemy lines during the invasion of Normandy. The men wearing this glider badge, if there are any still alive, have not only survived a literal crash landing but fought on to their objectives behind enemy lines. There’s not a lot of badges that can top this one. 

Army astronaut device and badges

An Army Col. receiving the Army Astronaut Badge.
Col. Andrew R. “Drew” Morgan receives the Army astronaut device from Lt. Gen. Daniel L. Karbler, commanding general of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, during a May 5 ceremony at the National Museum of the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. (Ronald Bailey/U.S. Army)

Step aside, Space Force! The Army astronaut device was first approved on May 17, 1983. It’s like the Buzz Lightyear badge but even cooler. The device is added to either the Army aviator badge, flight surgeon badge, or aviation badge and the device’s design was based on a shooting star and elliptical orbit superimposed over the shield. The shooting star passing through the elliptical orbit symbolizes space and the astronaut’s theatre of operations.

To earn this rare badge, soldiers will have to earn any type of aviation badge first and execute at least one mission in space, which means they need to travel 50 miles or more from Earth’s surface. The crewmember badge is awarded if the soldier went on a space mission but didn’t have an aviation badge first.

Military mountaineer badge, or ‘the ram’s head’ device

Army Combat Uniform ram's head device
The coveted ram’s head device has a long history dating back to the 1950s and is the skill badge soldiers can wear after graduating from the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School. (U.S. Army)

The Ram’s head device is authorized for any soldier who graduates the Basic Military Mountaineer Course held at the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School located in the unforgiving terrain in and around Jericho, Vermont. Anyone in the military and several other ally military members can earn the coveted ram’s head device.

The dall ram head device was adopted for instructors to wear in the 1950s. The design pays tribute to the sacrifices of World War II mountain soldiers and the U.S. Army’s past mountain warfare training institution traditions. 

Now, the schoolhouse teaches basic, advanced, and specialty mountain warfare courses. They also teach mission-specific training to U.S. and foreign military forces in a variety of countries. If you are fighting in the mountains or need to make your way over them to accomplish your mission, look for the guys with the ram’s head device. 

Guard, Tomb of the Uknown Soldiers identification badge

Guard, Tomb of the Uknown Soldiers identification badge.
U.S. Army Soldiers Pfc. Dustin R. Miller and Spc. Christopher Seaman assigned to 4th Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) was awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge during a ceremony at the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, April 26, 2019. (Spc. Daniel Yeadon/U.S. Army)

The amount of pure discipline one must demonstrate to earn the Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers identification badge is far above your average soldier in the Army. The badge has been around since Honorable Wilbur Brucker, former Secretary of the Army, authorized it for wear on Sept. 9, 1957.

The 1st Battalion (Reinforced), 3d U.S. Infantry — better known as The Old Guard — is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, first established in 1784 and responsible for The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is a memorial to the troops who never made it home or whose bodies were unidentifiable. But only the Old Guard soldiers who have earned this badge are trusted with the unit’s most sacred duty: guarding the tomb day and night, regardless of the weather.

The extreme discipline of these soldiers is evident in every step they take while patrolling the tomb. Anyone wearing this badge can be counted on for any task set before them. Though it’s authorized during a soldier’s tenure at the unit, it can become a permanent fixture on a soldier’s uniform after nine months of honorable service in the Old Guard.

Nuclear reactor operator badge

Basic Nuclear Reactor Operator Badge
The cube shape represents a nuclear reactor. The two bars represent control rods, alluding to nuclear reactor operations. The disc symbolizes the knowledge and training required of all nuclear reactor operators, completeness, and the sun — the source of all energy and power. The symbol of the planet Uranus — where the term “uranium” is derived from — represents nuclear energy and power. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Department of the Army first authorized the Nuclear Reactor Operator Badge on June 18, 1965, but it is no longer authorized as of Oct. 1, 1990. Either way, it’s a pretty rad badge for those who earned it. They had to demonstrate their skill and knowledge in operating the various systems of a nuclear reactor; the Army no longer trains on or runs any nuclear reactors.

There are four levels to this badge: basic, second class, first class, and shift supervisor (gold). A soldier with the basic badge has demonstrated their skill in operating nuclear reactor systems under the supervision of a certified reactor operator. The second class badge shows that a soldier has completed 15 shifts on a specific nuclear power plant or research reactor. 

First-class operators have completed 30 shifts as trainee first-class operators and have passed a written test covering all aspects of nuclear reactor operations. Shift supervisors have completed at least 80 shifts as first-class operators and 40 shifts as trainee shift supervisors, in addition to the written test. Out of all the badges on this list, this one might have the highest stakes for those who wear it.

Airborne wings with a mustard stain 

single combat jump parachutist badge
Jump wings with a single bronze star symbolize the soldier has completed a combat static line jump into enemy territory. (U.S. Air Force photo/Task & Purpose composite)

Jump wings, officially the parachutist badge, have a long and bloody history — especially if you know what ‘blood wings’ are. Only military personnel, including those from foreign militaries, that pass the U.S. Army Basic Airborne Course held at Ft. Moore, Georgia, are awarded these jump wings. 

Hundreds of thousands have graduated from the airborne course authorizing the badge, making it a common sight on military bases. There are three levels of parachutis wings: basic, senior, and master, but very few have a mustard stain on their wings.

The little bronze star, often referred to as a mustard stain, is earned by participating in a combat jump into enemy territory. Combat jumps first started in World War II and have been in Uncle Sam’s playbook ever since. The last combat static line parachute drop happened during Operation Northern Delay, when over one thousand 173rd Airborne Brigade paratroopers jumped into Iraq on March 26, 2003. 

But, that’s just the first level of mustard stain, marked by a single yellow-gold star. Some War on Terror veterans have two mustard stains on their wings, and some World War II veterans walked around with up to four mustard stains, but to our knowledge, no one paratrooper has executed five combat jumps in airborne history.

Special operations diver badge

combat diver badge
The combat diver badge is officially called the special operations diver badge. It is a symbol of the clandestine water infiltration and exfiltration capabilities that combat divers master. (U.S. Army photo/Task & Purpose composite)

The coveted special operations diver badge, commonly referred to as a combat diver badge, is awarded to those with the grit and mental fortitude to graduate from the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification course — considered one of the most difficult training courses in the military. The badge was first authorized in 2004, not to be confused with other Army dive badges. For years, combat divers had to wear the same badge as U.S. Army engineers and U.S. Navy SCUBA divers trained elsewhere.

The combat diver badge just looks awesome. It includes a mask and mouthpiece commonly seen in a closed-circuit rebreather system and crossed daggers honoring the legacy of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) swimmers. The final piece of the badge, sharks, represent the stealth, speed, and power that special operations divers possess after earning their ‘bubbles.’

The special operations diver badge is the mark of an elite soldier capable of conducting clandestine underwater infiltration before taking on the military’s most dangerous and important missions. 

Military freefall parachutist badge

An Army soldiers ribbons, awards, and skill badges.
The Military Freefall Parachutist Badge is the hallmark of any soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or Guardian who completes the Special Forces Military Freefall School. (K. Kassens/U.S. Army – cropped)

If static line parachute operations are the hammer, then military freefall operations are the scalpel. Those wearing the military freefall badge have graduated from the Special Forces Military Freefall School, part of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

Those authorized to wear the freefall badge have been trained in HALO (high altitude-low opening) and HAHO (high altitude-high opening) parachuting techniques. The freefall skillset enables small teams to execute clandestine aerial insertion from heights as high as 40,000 feet above ground level. 

Students who typically attend the freefall course are from elite organizations like Special Forces, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and Marine Force Reconnaissance. 

Combat medical badge

combat medical badge
Medics of Task Force 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment are awarded the esteemed Combat Medical Badge during a ceremony on Forward Operating Base Independence in Baghdad on Jan. 17, 2005. (U.S. Army photo/Spc. Erik LeDrew, 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Out of an entire infantry platoon who took contact during a mission, some 30 soldiers will be awarded the combat infantry badge, but only one, maybe two, will receive the combat medic badge. That’s Doc, the guy or gal who will make sure you live or die trying. Medics are authorized to wear the combat medic badge if they have actively engaged the enemy in combat or worked as a medic while engaged in combat. 

The combat medic badge was approved on Jan. 29, 1945. A medic can receive this award up to four times, and with each award, a star is added to the device. So, if you see a CMB with multiple stars in your platoon, consider yourself lucky to have an honest-to-God bonafide war hero medic covering you. 

This badge is only authorized for members of the Army Medical Department, Naval Medical Department, Air Force Medical Service, or Special Forces medical sergeants — for those at the rank of colonel or below. 

Pathfinder badge

Pathfinder badge on a U.S. Army uniform.
U.S. Army Soldiers are pinned with the Pathfinder badge during the Pathfinder course graduation at the Romanian Air Base, Mihail Kogalniceanu, Dec. 13, 2022. (Pvt. Kyler Hembree/U.S. Army)

First in, last out. That’s the Pathfinder motto and is the hallmark of each soldier who earned the right to wear it. First authorized as a felt badge on May 22, 1964, the Pathfinder badge was later replaced with a metal and enamel badge on October 11, 1968.

Army Pathfinders are experts in establishing drop zones for airborne and helicopter infiltration.  They are trained in offering advice and limited aid to units planning air assault or airdrop operations. The school is only 15 days long, but it’s considered academically challenging, with students drinking from the proverbial firehose to learn their craft as pathfinders.

A previous version of this story has been updated to better describe the Army Astronaut Device and Badges.

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