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Captain's bars passed on through combat zone history

The rank of captain has been symbolized by double silver bars since 1832, and is sometimes referred to as railroad tracks. A specific set of the insignia has been passed down in combat zones through history, originating in World War II. In August, a captain flying out of Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, got to continue that tradition pinning on the special insignia which had been flown on a combat mission over Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)

The rank of captain has been symbolized by double silver bars since 1832, and is sometimes referred to as railroad tracks. A specific set of the insignia has been passed down in combat zones through history, originating in World War II. In August, a captain flying out of Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, got to continue that tradition pinning on the special insignia which had been flown on a combat mission over Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)

Lt.Col. James Mach, 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron commander, pins the rank of captain onto Capt. Norman Popp, 22 EARS pilot, during a 376th Air Expeditionary Wing promotion and awards ceremony at Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, August 31, 2013. The rank has been passed down through U.S. combat zones and conflicts since World War II. Popp is deployed out of RAF Mildenhall, England, and is a native of Jackson, Mo.(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)

Lt.Col. James Mach, 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron commander, pins the rank of captain onto Capt. Norman Popp, 22 EARS pilot, during a 376th Air Expeditionary Wing promotion and awards ceremony at Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, August 31, 2013. The rank has been passed down through U.S. combat zones and conflicts since World War II. Popp is deployed out of RAF Mildenhall, England, and is a native of Jackson, Mo.(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)

TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, Kyrgyzstan -- Since 1832, the rank of captain has been symbolized by double silver bars, sometimes referred to as railroad tracks. For each commissioned officer earning the rank of captain, the insignia carry special meaning. For a specific set of these bars, the rank carries extra meaning.

These "railroad tracks" come with a combat tradition.

"The story behind the rank is fascinating," said Lt. Col. James Mach, 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron commander. "The Transit Center received the rank through the Embassy here in Kyrgyzstan with the desire of being passed on to a promoting captain during a U.S. war or conflict."

The captain's bars were initially owned by a pilot during World War II. They were then passed on to a C-47 pilot flying combat missions in Korea.

In 1969, the pilot, serving with the 362nd Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron, passed the insignia to Col. (ret.) John Stuart, who was promoted to Captain on an EC-47 over III Corps of the Army operating areas in Vietnam and Cambodia. Stuart was serving with Detachment Two of the 6994th Security Squadron, based in Pleiku Air Base, Vietnam.

The rank was flown over Kosovo during Operation Allied Force in 1999 on an F-16 from the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, for his daughter, Brittany, then a lieutenant. During the conflict, Col. Stuart promoted his daughter with the rank.

"My father promoted me with these captain's bars at Aviano Air Base, Italy," said Lt. Col. Brittany Stewart, Air Attaché with the U.S. Defense Attaché Office at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

"He requested that I continue the tradition by passing them on to a highly deserving officer during war; I ask that the bars continue to be passed on during wartime," said the lieutenant colonel whose married name is similar to her maiden name.

14 years later, a tragedy struck when three Airmen in their KC-135 Stratotanker crashed in northern Kyrgyzstan. In June, Stewart found herself on a temporary duty assignment supporting the crash site recovery, and gave the insignia to Col. Corey Martin, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing commander at the time, with the request that they be pinned on in Operation Enduring Freedom to a deserving captain.

In keeping with the tradition, the insignia was flown on August 15, 2013, in a KC-135 in a combat mission over Afghanistan as part of OEF. That same month, Lt. Col. James Mach, 22nd EARS commander, continued the tradition by pinning the rank onto Capt. Norman Popp during a monthly 376th Air Expeditionary Wing promotion and awards ceremony at Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan,.

"It's a big honor, being part of a tradition like that," said Popp, 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron pilot, deployed out of RAF Mildenhall, England, and a native of Jackson, Mo. "It was offered; they were looking for people interested and I volunteered. It seemed like something neat to be a part of; a good tradition to carry on. I look forward to getting the opportunity to pass them on again someday."
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