Small Coin, Big History

A lot of people may not be aware of this, but members of the armed forces carry a symbol of pride, brotherhood, camaraderie and unity wherever they go; and it is in the form of military coins or what is also often called as “challenge coins”. These coins are custom made and are designed with symbols and mottos that stand for the organization they each represent. They are also presented to members with significant achievements and contributions in their field or as a welcoming token to those from another troop. These challenge coins that gallant military men collect and trade with each other have a history that dates back to almost a hundred years.

military coinsThe most common story of the origin of military coins is that of an American pilot from World War I whose life was saved because of a coin. According to the story, the pilot was forced to land on the enemy grounds because his aircraft was terribly damaged by a ground fire. Sure enough, the pilot was captured by a German patrol and was held captive, ready to be executed. The Germans took away all his personal belongings to make sure he does not escape, leaving nothing but his small leather pouch containing a coin that his lieutenant has given to his squadron before they were deployed. This coin, which is made of solid bronze, bears the troop’s insignia and was made for every member of the squadron.

Luckily for the American pilot, the facility where he was detained was attacked and heavily bombarded by the British forces, giving him a chance to escape. Wearing civilian clothes and without any personal identification, he reached a French outpost but was immediately captured as the French did not recognize his American accent and thought he was a saboteur. (During those times, saboteurs often disguise themselves as civilians.) The French troop was ready to execute him, but the American pleaded for his life and proved to them that he is really an ally. He presented the coin with the emblem of the squadron. The French officer was able to recognize the identifying marks on the coin and postponed the execution long enough for them to verify the American pilot’s identity. Thus, he was not killed but was given a toast instead.

Because of what happened, everyone in the troop made sure to carry their own coin wherever they go as a sort of identification. They had to make sure none of them ever gets mistaken as a spy. This is where the term “challenge coin” originated. To check that the members of the squadron never forget to bring their military coins, they laid out the rules of what they called as “a coin check” in a form of a challenge. This challenge can be initiated anytime and begins when an owner of a coin holds it up in the air or slams it on a table or the floor while yelling “coin check!”

It can also be done through any verbal means of acknowledging that one is initiating the challenge. (Note that if somebody is clumsy enough to accidentally drop his own coin causing an audible sound, it would still mean that a coin check is initiated, and the challenge absolutely has to push through.) Anyone who is challenged, even those who are not in uniform, must respond to it by showing his own coin within a couple of seconds. Now here is the fun part – failure to respond immediately will result to a consequence of buying a round of drinks for everyone who has their military challenge coins. If in case nobody failed the challenge, the challenger loses and therefore, has to buy the drinks. Cheers to whoever came up with that awesome game. These military coins will forever ignite the spirit of these brave heroes.