The Treasured Challenge Coin

For many veterans, our challenge coins are some of the most valuable mementos from our military service. While service decorations are mostly relegated to a shadow box or uniform, a challenge coin collection is frequently and proudly displayed at the office or home. They’ve become an important part of military ceremonies today, but they’re a recent addition to the military culture.

Although the idea of commemorative coins dates back to the Roman days, the challenge coin tradition in the United States Armed Forces allegedly started in the Army Air Corps back in World War I. The most common retelling of the story involves a downed pilot using a coin, gilded with his squadrons logo and gifted by a wealthy lieutenant, to identify his loyalty to his French captors.

Another tale recounts the issuing of coins as credentials for spies in Nazi-controlled France during World War II. Other variations of the story continue, but was cemented in tradition by Colonel Verne Green of the 10th SF Group-A, the first, and only, recorded challenge coin tradition until the 1980’s.

Since then, challenge coins have spread themselves to every branch of service. The challenge aspect of the coins has largely diminished, the only time I’ve actually seen a coin challenge was from over-zealous Privates fresh out of basic training. Their ceremonial use, however, has only expanded and many soldiers cherish and proudly display their coins even more prominently than service decorations. How did this happen?

Awards have lost some of their sentimental value over the years, thanks largely in part to the bureaucratic system that surrounds awards, especially in noncombat settings. Junior soldiers become jaded to awards when they see the disparities in how and when awards are distributed; sometimes meritorious events are saved to help boost an end-of-tour or change-of-station award. Other times, rank becomes the predominant determination of which decoration is awarded. I know for damned sure I’ve met Sergeants who have contributed enough blood and sweat to a unit or war effort to qualify for a Meritorious Service Medal and walk away with an Army Achievement Medal. These awards often become nothing more than promotion points and an extra trip to Clothing and Sales.

Enter the Challenge Coin. Unlike awards, challenge coins often commemorate a specific event or activity that gets lost in the hustle of day to day activities. More specifically they’re attached directly to individuals. Sometimes a commander noticed you were a rock-star participant in a major exercise or field event; sometimes you were just in the right time and place to meet an important VIP. But unlike awards, the coins are directly and, for the most part, quickly endowed for a specific impact. I worked hard at my first unit to complete my unit’s collection of challenge coins, from the Company all the way up to the Corps Commander.

Will coins eventually go the way of the ribbon? It’s uncertain; coins awarded for right-place-and-time are starting to become more common than when I joined the service, but they still retain their personal connection to the unit and people who commissioned the coins. They fill an important morale-role in the modern force and, hopefully, future commanders will continue the tradition of coins that exist independently of the awards system.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Garrett Ferrara

Garrett is a writer, perpetual student, and seven-year Army veteran. Currently studying Anthropology and Writing & Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida, he's hoping to stretch the G.I. Bill all the way to a PhD. Bilbo Baggins is his favorite literary character; a character that traveled, fought battles, and finally settled into a simple life. He's looking forward to squaring away that last phase.
Garrett Ferrara

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