PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- For nearly three decades, Lt. Col. Rich Operhall, the commander of the 76th Space Control Squadron here, has fueled his love of Air Force history and heritage by collecting patches -- A lot of them.
At last count, he had more than 15,000 patches.
The son of a three-war Air Force veteran, Operhall said his love of the Air Force began in second grade. He recalled childhood memories of drawing planes and being fascinated by the flying world.
"In junior high school I had a friend ... and he discovered that by writing to Air Force bases, to public affairs offices and other places, they would send him stuff," Operhall said. "He showed me how to do it and I started writing to different public affairs offices for the various wings and bases and they started sending me stuff.
"I'd get fact sheets and pictures and base guides and occasionally they'd send stickers and things from the various units," he said. "And for a small kid, this treasure trove of free stuff was great!"
Operhall said it was a response he received from the now defunct Bitburg Air Base in Germany that began his patch collection.
"The Bitburg public affairs office sent me a stack of patches," Operhall recalled. "I was like, 'Oh, this is cool.' So, as part of my request when I would write to the different bases, I started asking for patches."
While Operhall's initial requests were sometimes denied, he still persisted.
"If I would get turned down, I would subsequently write to the individual units and try to get patches from them," Operhall said. "And low and behold, after writing to them, the next thing you know I've got 100 patches and then 200 patches and it started growing and growing from there."
His collection continued into his teenage years, as well as his interest in the Air Force.
"I joined the Civil Air Patrol when I was 13 and that actually fueled (my collection) even more because we'd go visit Air Force bases and literally, I would go around bumming patches from people at the different units, including some of the aircrew," the collector said. "The nice thing is when you're a young kid, people tend to give you stuff."
Over the years, as Operhall's collection grew, so did the responses to his inquiries. Some of the more memorable letters he received were from James Doolittle III and also a former Thunderbird who returned a letter on Thunderbird stationary.
For Operhall, however, this passion is more than simply collecting patches. It is about the stories behind the patches and the people who make the units' stories come to life.
"The patches fuel for me a passion for Air Force history connected to our heritage, and although it's a short heritage, it's a pretty distinguished heritage," he said. "The patches tie us back to our history, to the people who came before us, to all of the giants and to all of the little people ... who make the Air Force work day-to-day. And that's really what all of this stuff represents. It's about Airmen, it's about people."