Challenge coins a trademark tradition for American military

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder
  • 354th Communications Squadron
Collecting coins or medallion bearing an organization's insignia or emblem is quiet popular among the people serving in today's military. 

Coins are given to people who provide outstanding support. Coins prove membership in a unit or career field. Coins enhance morale.

Usually presented by high-ranking officers, it's considered to be a great honor to receive a challenge coin.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Strang, 354th Communication Squadron photographer, said his favorite coin is the one he received from Lt. Gen. Allen Peck, Deputy Combined Forces Air Component commander, while deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

Sergeant Strang said he was working late after hours on a layout project for a major who called saying he wanted to make a few changes to a layout project Sergeant Strang was working on. He continued working on the project and making the changes when the major called again with even more changes.

After Sergeant Strang finished making the final round of changes, the major and a chief master sergeant came to see the layout and thanked him for his hard work.

"After they thanked me, the major said, 'Jump in the vehicle, we want you to meet someone,'" Sergeant Strang explained.

"They drove me to the Combined Air Operations Center and the chief told me to wait while he went to get someone," he said. "All of the sudden, Maj. Gen. Allen Peck comes walking out and thanked me for all the hard work I'd been doing on the project." 

General Peck then presented Sergeant Strang with a coin.

Moments such as this leave lasting impressions on those who receive challenge coins.

One of the most well-known challenge coins among enlisted Airmen is the one they receive upon graduation from basic military training.

In the event a trainee completes basic training and becomes an Airman, the Airman receives a coin marking the start of an Air Force career. The moment and can be very emotional for the service's newest Airmen.

Many organizations and services claim to have been the originators of the challenge coin. However, the most commonly held view is that the tradition began in predecessor of the Air Force; the United States Army Air Corps.

During World War I, American volunteers from all across America filled the ranks of newly formed flying squadrons.

Legend has it that in one particular squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to the men in his unit.

According to stories on several Web sites, one young pilot placed the medallion in a small leather pouch he wore around his neck. Shortly after acquiring the medallions, the pilots' aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire and he was forced to land behind enemy lines. He was immediately captured by a German patrol.

That night, while being held captive in a small occupied French town, he took advantage of an artillery bombardment and escaped. However, he was without personal identification, which had been taken by the Germans.

He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian attire and eventually reached the front lines. With great difficulty, he crossed no-man's land and stumbled onto a French outpost.

Previously, saboteurs had plagued the French in the sector. They sometimes masqueraded as civilians. The French, not recognizing the young pilot's American accent, thought him to be a saboteur and planned to execute him.

He had no identification to prove his allegiance, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his French captors who recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough to confirm his identity.

Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine.

Back at his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion, or coin, at all times.

Today, many service members proudly display their "coin collections" on a display rack, a show of the many accomplishments and achievements they have earned over the years. Every coin has a story or meaning behind it on either how it was earned.

However, the most valuable coin is most always the one kept on ones person in the event of a "coin check."

Coin checking is when someone initiates a challenge by holding up his or her coin and announces, "Coin Check!" then places the coin on a hard surface making an audible noise. Everyone within earshot must produce their coin; failing to do so will result in buying a round of drinks.

If someone accidentally drops a coin, this initiates the challenge automatically to anyone who sees or hears the coin hit the ground. They then have to produce a coin and the person who dropped the coin must buy a round of drinks.

Regardless of how they came about, how they are acquired and displayed or how they are used, the challenge coin is truly a part of today's military tradition.