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Why Do Some People Wear An American Flag Patch Backwards?

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When people see military units march by at patriotic parades or even see Air Force One soar through the sky, many wonder why the flag looks different. The flag looks backward on the arms of military service members, police officers, and government aircraft.

In truth, it isn’t backward; in the technical terms of the U.S. Flag Code, it is being flown in reverse. This is not a mistake or an accident; this tradition dates back to our nation’s founding.

Men's Vintage American Flag Patriotic T-shirt

Not a Mistake

The armed forces and the U.S. Flag Code require the flag to be displayed in reverse on government and military personnel and equipment. This is not done to look unique; flying the flag in reverse began as an armed forces tradition and has since been brought to civilian life by men and women who proudly wore a reversed flag on their uniform in service worldwide.

Army History and Tradition

The tradition of reversing flag patches began with the United States Army. Before each soldier wore a flag on their uniform, military units advanced toward their enemy, led by flag bearers.

These soldiers carried the Stars and Stripes and the unit’s colors at the front of the formation, guiding the troops and giving the unit courage under fire. If a flag bearer fell, other soldiers rushed to carry the colors forward and proudly carried it on to victory.

If you saw one of these brave men bearing Old Glory forward, you would have seen the blue canton always facing forward toward the enemy with the stripes blowing in the wind behind. This signaled an advance, an attack, with brave Americans marching into danger for the freedom and safety of the nation.

When flag patches were added to uniforms, this proud tradition continued. Army Uniform regulation 670-1 (AR 670-1) mandates that the flag is displayed on the right shoulder, considered the place of honor, and chapter 19 of the Guide to the Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia requires the canton to face forward.

This symbolizes our Army charging forward with the flag flying at the forefront of the advance. It represents the progress of our nation, which carries all Americans forward toward what our founders called “A More Perfect Union.” The nation’s colors signal advances toward a better future, never retreating or regrouping, just on to the next victory.  

Don't Tread On Me

Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Space Force Rules

The Army is not the only branch of our nation’s military which honors the tradition of the flag flying in reverse. Ships at sea and aircraft in the sky will feature the same reverse flag to symbolize an advancing nation.

The U.S. Code does not mandate where the flag should be displayed on the uniform, and each branch of the armed forces has its own traditions.

  • The Navy does not require the flag to be displayed on work uniforms but allows sailors to wear it with the canton facing forward if they like and requires it on type II and type III uniforms.
  • The Coast Guard wears the same canton-forward flag but on the left shoulder rather than the right. The U.S. Code states that both are respectful provided the flag is canton forward.
  • The Air Force follows Air Force Instruction 36-2903 which requires they wear the flag on their right shoulder when in camouflage uniforms and allows the option to wear a flag or various unit or school patches.
  • The Marine Corps has carried our flag forward in many conflicts and proudly raised its canton forward on Iwo Jima but does not require current marines to display the flag in their uniform.
  • The Space Force is the newest branch and follows the same regulations as the air force.

The Stars and Stripes on the Moon

The military is not the only organization in our nation that displays the flag in reverse. The Presidential limousine, known as “The Beast,” carries the president, and it flies the flag with the canton forward as it once would have been flown by a flag bearer.

Law Enforcement, Firefighters, and EMTs across the nation display flags on their uniforms similar to the armed forces to symbolize their part in our nation’s advance and their role in protecting all Americans’ safety, health, and security.

When NASA launches brave men and women into the cosmos, they wear the flag on their right shoulder in reverse like soldiers in the Army. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their fateful steps to become the first humans on the moon, their white space suits had the Stars and Stripes in full color on their right shoulder, with the canton forward, symbolizing our nation’s greatest leap toward a better future.

Veteran Tradition

Beyond our military and government officials, it is common to see American citizens wearing a flag patch backward on their regular, everyday clothes. The addition of a reversed American flag to civilian clothes is a relatively recent trend, though one that has been widely adopted all across the nation.

There is no definitive evidence for when this practice began, but there are two theories. Some believe it began with wearing surplus military or military-style clothes after WWII. Many people loved to wear bomber jackets or other cool military clothes.

In the 1960’s veterans of the Vietnam conflict often wore their army shirts when they returned from the conflict in support and opposition to the war. The olive green shirts caught on and became as much a fashion statement as a symbol of patriotism.

Others point to the horrific events of September 11th and the surge in patriotism that followed to be the origin of the practice. Countless Americans sacrificed to defend our freedoms in the War on Terror. In the social media age, the image of brave Americans wearing a reverse flag became a cultural hallmark.

Veterans returning from the conflicts wanted to continue to show their patriotism and pride in their service by wearing the flag on their clothes as they once wore it on their uniforms. This practice honors their brothers and sisters-in-arms and helps everyone remember those still deployed and fighting for our freedom.

What began as an informal practice among armed forces and law enforcement veterans spread to the wider nation.

Civilian Respect

Many civilians who have never served also wear American flag patches backward. While some might incorrectly interpret this as a sign of disrespect, it is, in fact, the complete opposite. Patriotic people like to wear clothes that express their love of country, and a backward flag patch does just that.

While a backward flag patch will have a different meaning for each person, many patriots wear it to honor those who served. This type of flag originates in the uniforms of those who have sacrificed so much for our nation, our freedom, and our safety.

Wearing a flag in this style can show respect for those who serve; it can act as a reminder not to forget those currently serving and honor those who have sacrificed for our country.

Backward flags can also be worn as a sign of duty to the country. We all have responsibilities as citizens to keep our nation strong and progressing. While we might not be in uniform, this flag can represent that we are still citizens on duty for America.

Some proud Americans like to keep the Stars and Stripes close to their hearts. Whether worn on either sleeve, a flag patch can be a daily reminder that our struggles and efforts as individuals contribute to the overall success of America and ground us in patriotism before all else.

Flag Patch Clothing From Freedom Fatigues

Many clothing companies produce patriotic clothing, but Freedom Fatigues puts backward flag patches on our clothing as a symbol of much more. The flags represent our commitment to America, its values, and those who have sacrificed to make our nation great. It also represents a commitment to supporting our country and only selling American-made clothes.

Each piece of our clothing is 100% American-made, from the cotton and polyester used for the fabric to the thread used for the stitching. All our apparel is screen printed by proud Americans in our factory just outside of Detroit.

Don’t put a flag patch on clothes made in a sweatshop overseas. Part of being American is supporting the companies and workers that make our country great. Freedom Fatigues puts flags on our clothing out of love of country, not fashion, and each flag symbolizes deep respect for those who serve and have served and profound gratitude toward those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Honor America with real American clothes.

Freedom Fatigues: More Than a Clothing Company

Beyond merely making clothes that honor America and its heroes, Freedom Fatigues is a veteran-owned family business that stands with armed forces and law enforcement veterans. We believe in paying it forward and donating a portion of all proceeds to help veterans in need.  

Freedom Fatigues has partnered with veteran non-profits like Mission 22 and Victory Gym, which work to help armed services and first responder veterans get the help they deserve if they are suffering from mental or physical wounds due to their service.

Freedom Fatigues is proud to support our veterans, and we work every day to ensure their sacrifice is never forgotten. Wearing their patriotic apparel can help support an all-American veteran-owned, family business, and support our heroes.

Check out their line of apparel today, and join the ranks of proud Americans who wear a backward flag patch on their arm to show their love for the greatest nation on Earth.