By Eric Brandner

SAN FRANCISCO—Ken Bates served in the Navy and Navy Reserve for more than 20 years. But he didn’t get coined until after he retired. And that got him thinking.

“I started to go back through time, bases I’ve been to, aircraft I’ve flown on,” he said. “And through online purchasing, I’d go and grab something [from each place].”

He started volunteering at USO Bay Area’s San Francisco International Airport Center in the spring of 2012 and – after finding 37 challenge coins in the bottom of a box while sorting unit patches – approached center leadership about organizing them into display cases.

Photo credit Joseph Andrew Lee

USO Bay Area volunteer and retired Navy reservist Ken Bates talks about the patches on the wall in the USO center at San Francisco International Airport. Bates explained the patch he’s pointing at in the photo must always be worn blue side up.

Four years and four cases later, the coins are an instant draw when you walk into the SFO center. But by numbers alone, the 200 coins pale in comparison to the center’s nearly 45-year-old patch collection.

“I’ll see a lot of younger military travelers gravitate to the challenge coins,” Bates said. “And our elder veterans will gravitate toward the patches.

“[Veterans and service members spend] a few minutes, eating some time here while they’re between flights or a pickup, trying to see if any portion of the service they’re with is represented somewhere here on our walls.”

Photo credit Joseph Andrew Lee

A catalogue featuring the description of the more than 500 patches in the USO Bay Area’s San Francisco International Airport center.

The center started displaying collected patches in 1973. Today, they have a meticulously itemized list created by volunteer Gary Fink that details the 573 patches displayed on their walls.

“This is something that I would imagine if I was a commando or a Navy SEAL, they don’t hand these things out like bubble gum,” Bates said. “There’s a certain amount of passion that goes with it and an esprit de corps.”

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.