A Story Of Honor: The Curious History Of Military Challenge Coins
If you’re a member of the United States military, the chances are that you’re familiar with the long-standing tradition of military challenge coins.
The small, metal tokens date back to World War II. The military tradition is upheld by many who continue to keep their coins close at all times.
Beginning with President Clinton, each president has had their own uniquely designed challenge coin. Presidents have given these coins as gifts to honor foreign leaders and U.S. servicemen returning from tours of duty.
But, the tradition of the challenge coin has remained somewhat of a mystery to the civilian population. Until more recent years, the coins were largely uncelebrated in civilian groups. Today, however, the trend has begun making its’ way to the mainstream.
Read on to learn more about the history of military challenge coins!
The Mysterious History of Military Challenge Coins
Rarely has a tradition gained such widespread popularity among our country’s leaders and military without an exact understanding of where the tradition first originated. When it comes to the military’s long-standing tradition of the challenge coin, the history behind it isn’t completely agreed upon.
Where Did the Military’s Tradition of Challenge Coins Originate?
Challenge coins were never actually sanctioned by the military. So, the history behind the pocket-sized medallions wasn’t officially recorded. As a result, military historians have debated the issue of where they first originated.
According to one theory on the origination of challenge coins in the military, they were given to Ancient Roman soldiers after a hard day’s work.
Back then, it was custom to pay the soldiers for completing their daily duties at the end of each day. As a bonus, the Roman military veterans were given a special coin. The coin was marked by the legion from which it came.
Theoretically, the coin’s sentimental value kept them from spending their daily bonus. The rest of their earnings were spent on luxuries like booze and women. But, the soldiers held on to their prized coins as a memento of their work achievements.
The American Fighter Pilot Whose Challenge Coin Saved His Life
One of the most widely accepted theories surrounding the history of challenge coins is from World War I. It claims that a wealthy American lieutenant first gifted a set of matching coins to his troop. Supposedly, the coins were distributed as the troop deployed.
As the story unfolds, an American fighter pilot who had been given one of the coins was captured by the French. His French war allies initially believed him to be a German spy.
It was only because of the challenge coin that he wore around his neck that he was able to prove his innocence to his captors. Once he revealed the coin to them, they pronounced his freedom.
But, that’s not all. They also gave him a bottle of French wine to acknowledge their regret at having mistaken him for an enemy.
Vietnam Vets Present Challenge Coins instead of Drinking Money
Other historians believe that military challenge coins first became popular during the Vietnam War. This theory asserts that Vietnam soldiers had the option of presenting a challenge coin or enemy bullets to enter an infantry-run bar.
A Tradition Is Born
Whether challenge coins got their start in Ancient Rome, World War I or the Vietnam War may be unclear.
But, in at least two versions of history, the coins earned their owners’ alcoholic beverages. This seems to be one of the most significant takeaways by soldiers continuing this tradition today.
Even now, soldiers often are issued the “challenge” of presenting their coins when gathering for drinks. If a member of the group is unable to produce a coin or is the last to present a coin, they must buy the group a round of drinks.
While the history of challenge coins may be a source of debate, this modern-day challenge coin tradition is generally undisputed.
A Secret Handshake Yields a Surprise
In 2011, the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, visited military bases in Afghanistan before his upcoming retirement.
When he arrived at the base, he would extend a handshake to the military members serving duty there. Hidden in his hand would be a challenge coin. The coin was considered as a small token of appreciation for their service.
Since then, many challenge coins have transferred ownership during these so-called “secret handshakes.”
In 2014, President Obama was captured by photojournalists engaging in the famous coin-exchange at an air force base in Arkansas. The oft-recorded handshake contents have rarely been caught on film. So, the mysterious military challenge coin, planted in the palm of our then-president, made headlines.
Want to Learn More About Our Modern-Day Traditions?
From military challenge coins, to how we celebrate the holidays, our country is full of traditions.
Many of us observe age-old traditions year after year. But, few of us ever stop to think about how they came to be a part of our lives today. If we did, we might dig up some interesting tales.
Unlike challenge coins, many of our traditions can be traced back to their specific origin. But, the reasons for the traditions we continue might surprise you.
Some of our traditions came about due to necessity. While others have sentimental or symbolic roots.
Want to learn more about how our modern-day traditions have evolved over the years?
Check out this post to find out how our most popular new year traditions came to pass!