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Mike Craghead, model maker at The Institute of Heraldry, hand paints a vice presidential plaque for the HMX-1 helicopter, June 19. All presidential and vice presidential seals are molded, refined and painted by hand.

In a small Fort Belvoir studio, with brushes and paints occupying every inch of space on the table, an artist leans in toward a magnifier, and, with a fine-hair paint brush, carefully applies a stroke of golden paint to a sturdy 2-inch thick plaque that reads, Vice President of the United States. 

Michael Craghead rotates the plaque a bit, and with a different brush, fills in a spot on the deep blue background border. 

“It’s not just painting the plaques — I make all the plaques with resin, apply putty to the imperfections, etch away parts that don’t belong, and sand it down before hand-painting it,” Craghead said.

Craghead’s occupation goes back centuries in an art form known as heraldry. 

In the 12th century, knights would ride out to battle, but since one suit of armor looks like any other, there needed to be a way to distinguish friend from foe in the chaos of the fight, and that was the birth of heraldry. The coat of arms, the most fundamental element of heraldry, began as a textile garment that a knight wore over his armor, according to Charles Mugno, director of The Institute of Heraldry.

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“How do you tell your leadership, and who’s who, in the midst of the chaos of battle? Out of that requirement, came a structured approach to using color, shapes, symbols, flags and banners and all the things you see in the modern military from this requirement,” said Mugno. 

In the creation of a young republic, Mugno said, our founding fathers didn’t want to adopt anything associated with nobility, so heraldry was not adopted as a governmental function. It wasn’t until the World War I, and the U.S. Army’s first major mobilization to fight in Europe, that the need for insignia was developed. Out of that, came the U.S. Army Heraldic Program Office in 1918.

In 1957, the Secretary of the Army was directed by statute to provide heraldic services to the military departments and all branches of the federal government, giving rise to The Institute of Heraldry in 1960. 

During base realignment in 2005, TIOH was moved to Fort Belvoir, where it now has a team 19. They research, design and standardize heraldry for all uses.

“When we design medals, we only work with certified manufacturers to create the dies for stamping. That ensures every medal, no matter the year, will remain exactly the same. We go to the factory and inspect its processes. We also go to the PX’s and inspect the materials at the point of sale,” Mugno said.

He said his team takes great pride in everything they do, including researching and designing heraldry for the newly-created U.S. Space Force. 

“I spent 32 years in the Marine Corps, and I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” Mugno said. “I truly believe I have the best job in the Federal Government. I would not want to do anything else.”

For more information: https://tioh.army.mil

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