Interchangeably called military coins, challenge coins, memorial coins or unit coins (sometimes referred to as commander’s coin), custom coins strengthen bonds within the military and represent the beliefs and principles of each military unit. Carved with an insignia and motto, military coins also symbolize the integrity and identity of the organization as a whole. Every member is expected to treasure and respect his coin.
Commanders encourage and empower their subordinates through custom coins, designed uniquely to give their units a distinct identity. Special custom coins are sometimes awarded to service members who work hard or display excellence during weekend drills and other military activities. The coin reward and morale booster system is a regular practice in the United States Air Force.
Origin Of Custom Coins
Though we now have some idea about what custom coins are and what their purpose is, how they came into being is still a mystery. How much do we actually know about custom coins? The narratives seem to differ, however. There are different versions of the story.
The First Story
One story claims that custom challenge coins date back to World War I after volunteers from across America converged into different flying squadrons. There were Yale and Harvard-educated members, cream of the crop college students, who were thrown into the mix due to patriotic reasons. A rich lieutenant from one of the formed squadrons allegedly ordered several solid bronze medallions to be crafted. He then gave them to his assigned unit in the war. There was one pilot who stuffed the medallion in a pouch and wore it around his neck. Not long after this deed, the aircraft they were flying was damaged. The pilot forced-landed on enemy territory and the German army incarcerated him immediately thereafter.
To prevent the young pilot from escaping, German forces confiscated his personal belongings – all except for the pouch he wore which contained the medallion. On that very night, there was a bombardment in the French town he was taken to. Though he managed to escape in the ensuing chaos and even avoided German patrols by wearing a civilian disguise, he had not a single identification with him. He went out of the border and came across a French outpost which was already overrun by hooligans who pretended to be civilians.
The French believed the young pilot was a saboteur and ordered him executed since they could not recognize his accent and he did not have a single piece of identification. He would have been a total goner had it not been for the medallion in his pouch. Fortunately, one of the captors recognized the squadron insignia carved on its surface. The execution order was terminated and he was instead given a bottle of wine.
The medallion saved the young pilot’s life. His story served as a lesson for many unit members, who began carrying their medallions in every mission, wherever their destination was – basically all the time. The coin challenge emerged as a way of checking whether the member has brought his coin with him. Not producing a coin within sixty seconds often results to one member treating the other. Sometimes it is the other way around (if one member produces a coin within sixty seconds).
The Second Story
Another custom coin story traces its roots back to the Vietnam War. Though not as prominent as the first story, it has been said that the formation of Bullet Clubs to discourage boredom and create more excitement and boost morale paved the way for custom coins. Bullet Club members carried customized bullets from their combat weapons. They always carried these custom bullets and when they went to bars, team members they met along the way would challenge them to produce their own bullets or they would be obliged to pay the tab.
Custom coins and military men go a long way back. Their histories are intertwined as if one is not possible without the other.
Custom coins are an image of the bond you impart to kindred unit individuals, a pointer of the special encounters you share.