(Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on the U.S. Army Aviation Museum's patch collection.)

FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Army shoulder sleeve insignias tell a story about the Soldiers who wear them and the Soldiers who came before them.

Walking around Fort Rucker, Soldiers wear many different patches, either current unit or combat patches. But according to Bob Mitchell, curator at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum, if people want to see some stranger insignias that tell different stories, they need to look back at the history of Army Aviation.

"One of our really early ones is the 1105th Aero Replacement Squadron 'flying elephant' patch from WWI," said Mitchell. "There are probably three or four of these original patches in existence. A veteran who lives north of here donated that patch -- it is extremely rare."

"Modern day Army Aviation was not a branch until 1983," explained Mitchell. "Prior to that, the Transportation Corps had an interest in the cargo aircraft, MI [Military Intelligence] had an interest in surveillance aircraft, and the Medical Services Corps had an interest in the MedEvac [medical evacuation] aircraft. What we see as Army Aviation today was fractured into other branches of the military.

"Prior to 1983, our officers would be Armor, Infantry, or Artillery officers -- that's where they would be trained. Of course, they were Aviators, too, but their primary corps was Artillery, Infantry or Armor. This led to some interesting unit patches -- like you see here in the museum."

The museum maintains a collection of over 160 aircraft, many with unit insignias painted on or accompanied by unit patches in the historical property collection.

It was normal in the past for units to just draw insignias up when units were formed, re-designated, split or combined, said Mitchell. "Like for our H-19 Chickasaws, they asked Walt Disney, a former Red Cross ambulance driver in post-WW1 France, to design the insignia."

"Patches come and go," said Mitchell. "Just in the last 10 years with the global war on terrorism, I've seen a plethora of new patches created. Not only individual company patches, but also numbered unit patches. It is a constant ebb and flow when it comes to unit names, designations and patches."

Mitchell says people interested in collecting patches should just start looking. "There are lots of great stories in these patches and there are a lot of people all over the world who collect them. Just go on the internet, and there are groups who post photos of patches they find to share information and trade patches."