A couple of weeks ago I posted a photo of one of my challenge coins on Facebook. My supremely civilian sister, who inspired this Basic Training column, asked me what the meaning of the coin was, thus giving me the next topic of discussion.
The overly-simplistic explanation I gave to my sister that day was that people or units in the military can have coins made with unique symbols and mottos that they give out as tokens of appreciation or as a “job well done” gesture. But, there is definitely a little more to the story of challenge coins.
Historically speaking, there isn’t a definitive answer on where the tradition of the coins came from. They can possibly be linked to the tradition of Roman soldiers being rewarded with a monetary coin for an exceptional job.
A popular origin story is from World War I, when a wealthy lieutenant of a flying squadron ordered medallions struck in solid bronze for his unit. One member of the squadron placed the coin in a pouch around his neck. After being shot down, a German patrol captured him and seized all his personal identification items, leaving him only with his coin.
After escaping, French allies captured him. Thinking he was a saboteur, they prepared to execute him. Without his identification materials, the only way he could prove he was an American was by showing his French captors his coin. One of the captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion and delayed the execution long enough for his identity to be confirmed.
Several other origin stories exist from World War II, the post-Korean War era and Vietnam War Special Forces Soldiers.
What does one do with a coin? Traditionally, a service member who receives a coin from the unit they’re serving in should carry that coin with them at all times. A “coin check” can be initiated at any time by any coin holder. Many times coin checks are done at a bar and include alcohol.
The challenger will draw their coin out and hold it in the air and state they are initiating a coin check. Another way to initiate the challenge is to loudly place the coin on a bar, table or floor.
The people being challenged must present their coins. If a Soldier does not have their coin on hand they must by a round of drinks for the challenger and those challenged. If everyone being challenged has their coin on hand, then the challenger must buy the round.
Coins have evolved from being something only military service members use within their units to being given to federal civilian employees and government dignitaries.
I have a small collection of coins, most of which were given to me while I was in the military. But, I also have a couple that were presented to me by military leaders while I was working as a Department of the Army civilian employee. I love my coins and I think most people who have coins cherish them and appreciate the symbolism of hard work and gratitude that they hold.
(If you have a question about the military or Fort Bragg you would like me to answer, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)