Appreciation comes in many forms: plaques, letters, gifts, or handshakes, to name a few. However, the military adheres to a different, but unofficial way of honoring their members with proof of affiliation: the challenge coin.
Although there are many versions of the challenge coin’s history, the apparent truth is they are passed from a ranking service member or government official to another service member or awardee as a sign of respect and gratitude, proving allegiance when challenged (confronted by another coin holder, asking to “show your coin”).
Service members also trade them to complete collections or, as seen often, used to determine who is buying the next round at the bar, depending on whose coin is valued higher (obtainability, not monetary value).
But challenge coins have roots that go much deeper than just sitting as a display on a desk, filling an empty slot in a case, or being used to acquire a free drink. Their unique stories, intricate level of design, proof of camaraderie, and personal ties differentiate them from any other collector’s item.
Michael Hedin, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, received his 2nd Battalion-6th Marine coin from his Fox Company superior at a bar outside of Camp Lejeune, circa 2003.
“Late in my Marine career, a staff sergeant who I had served with for many years took me out for drinks,” Hedin said. “He let me know he was taking the warrant officer route and told me I needed to get out and ‘do something with my life other than be a grunt’.”
The staff sergeant then handed him the coin to remember his experiences and said, “Go make your own [experiences],” Hedin said.
What makes military challenge coins even more interesting is that members from each branch have their own way of passing them along, whether during quarters (formation in front of a command for sea-going services), during deployments, large events, or just in passing.
In my own experience, I have earned a handful of coins as an active duty service member and reservist for the U.S. Coast Guard, each signifying different emergency responses, relationships, specialties, and chance. However, the coin I take most pride in is one my company commander gave me after my second visit to the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey.
I had been out of active duty for just over four years and accepted a position in the reserves. Because I had been out long enough, I was required to attend a three-week course of condensed basic training known as Direct Entry Petty Officer Training (DEPOT). There was one other prior service “Coastie” in DEPOT with me, and while my initial thought was that it would be easy, our company commanders took special care of me and my fellow shipmate – by singling us out as often as possible with pushups and quizzes on Coast Guard knowledge.
At the end of the three-week refresher, the lead company commander handed me her challenge coin, gave me a half-hug, and said, “Welcome back to the family.”
While coins are generally issued by a unit or group, such as a Special Forces team or a chief’s mess (enlisted leadership), some coins are more specific, unique, and custom-made for a single person to award. Dr. Vito Imbasciani, CalVet Secretary, received such a coin from an unexpected patron.
Shortly after the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, he was personally selected to introduce President Barack Obama at a fundraising event in Los Angeles. After delivering his opening remarks and introducing the president, he shook his hand and immediately felt the weight of the 44th Presidential Challenge Coin being passed to him, Imbasciani said.
President Obama mentioned Imbasciani in his speech as one of the sources of inspiration to defend the repeal of the infamous policy, validating every bit of the coin’s worth.
Over the years, challenge coins have evolved. What hasn’t changed is the method of passing them on and the personal value to the awardee.
So, the next time you meet a veteran or active duty service member, ask them to tell you about their challenge coins and what they mean to them.
First, buy them a round.