Traditions vary as to the exact origin of the ‘Challenge Coin’ but members of the military have a long standing tradition of carrying a special coin symbolizing unit identity and esprit de corps. With bonds forged in battle thousands of miles from home, custom coins minted for the military units—each bearing their own revered symbols and mottos – capture the essence of their affiliation and their fierce pride. Known to generations of American military personnel as “Challenge Coins”, they are a vital part of military life today and are revered by troops in every branch of service.
Today, challenge coins are carried by soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, as well as lawmen and firefighters. These coins identify the bearer as a member of a particular unit with well-defined history and mission. And, wherever Warriors gather, they challenge each other, to display their own coins.
The tradition of the challenge coins can be traced back to World War II when American forces deployed to the far reaches of the globe securing the nation’s freedom. Soldiers back to World War I and the Civil War left for battle with a coin from home in their pocket and kept it after the conflict as a lasting remembrance of their wartime experiences.
American soldiers stationed in Germany after the war adopted that country’s popular “pfennig check’. The pfennig was the smallest unit of German currency. When someone announced a ‘pfennig check’ a soldier who could not produce one had to buy a round of drinks for his buddies.
The popularity of challenge coins spread during the Vietnam War, inspired by Special Forces that minted coins to express the unique identity and strong bond forged between them. Other unites wanted their own coin to build camaraderie and symbolize their pride of membership in an elite group.
A challenge coin was and is not, mere a token. Challenge coins today are a tangible source of pride for America’s Warriors at every level in the chain of command. Commanders use them as on-the-spot awards. Senior military leaders often dole out their coins as gifts to foreign dignitaries or civilian VIPs.
Most important of all, a challenge coin is carried at all times. Coin checks are still a part of the military life, and various ‘droll penalties’ are still handed out for those found without their coin. Neither shower or latrine may exempt one from producing their coin.
In 2009, Rebecca St James, Christian singer and song-writer, performed at Fort Eustis, VA, as headliner, and several other artists, volunteering their gifts of music, in thanks to encourage troops and their families. As a volunteer Chaplain there, I attended with family and friends, including my grandson, who was then only 9 years old.
We encountered a unit of trainees, preparing to leave for Iraq duty within the week. As my grandson, enamored of all things military, a bedroom decorated in Army barracks style, was thrilled to talk to several of these young men and women. One, so engaged by James, pulled an Army Marksmanship Challenge Coin, out of his pocket and put it in the palm of a small boy’s hand. “I don't have a son or daughter to give this to now, he said, so I want to give it you, and ask you to remember to pray for me.”
Joining hands in a circle we all prayed for well-being and safe return home of all members in the unit. Later I explained exactly what the challenge coin meant. He put it in a special box, and when he enlisted in the U.S. Army two and half years ago, at our ‘celebration dinner’, pulled it out of his pocket, grinning from ear to ear. James aka known as ‘Radio’ because of his ability to sing endless songs by memory, has been deployed to Afghanistan, and currently still re-assigned overseas, but he’ll pass the test on his ‘”Coin Check”.
We are going to invite you to "Meet the Challenge-Join the Mission" for our Warrior Way Wellness Center in Williamsburg VA, be an "Ambassador of Hope".