MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE BARSTOW, Calif. - Military members around the world can be found with small, customized metal coins in their pockets, displayed on their desks or in their homes; what is the significance of these coins and why do some service members hold onto them so dearly?
The truth is … there isn’t one single reason. There are many different myths, legends and personal reasons as to why these coins are so important.
Patrick Wolcott, the mission assurance officer on Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif., and retired Air Force chief master sergeant, has heard many of these stories.
One popular story of the challenge coin dates back to the Army Air Corps during World War I. Legend has it that a prosperous lieutenant bought medallions dipped in bronze displaying the squadron’s insignia to give to each member of his unit.
After this, a pilot within the unit was shot down and captured by the Germans; they took every form of identification from him … except a leather pouch carrying his unit’s coin.
The young pilot managed to escape during a firefight, then cross “no man’s land” to reach a French outpost. The French, although in alliance with the Americans, did not believe that he was one and were prepared to execute him. The pilot showed the only form of identification on his person - the challenge coin. Luckily for the American pilot, the French recognized the insignia on the coin and instead of executing him, served him wine. From then on, the unit made it a tradition to carry the coin on them at all times.
Another story Wolcott is familiar with occurred during World War II, overseas where American currency was banned at the time. The Japanese would immediately destroy any American currency they came across … so, an underground Filipino unit used American silver dollars as a form of identification. If another member “challenged” their identity thinking they were Japanese spies, they would pull out their silver dollars to prove they belonged in the unit.
Aside from proving identity, Wolcott has heard of and even participated in challenge coin games. If members of a unit went out and someone slammed a challenge coin on the table, everyone would have to do the same. If someone did not have one on them, they would pay the check; however, if everyone had one, the challenger paid.
“It’s a way to boost morale,” Wolcott explained.
Wolcott believes this is where the name challenge coin originated from; if someone challenges your identity with a specific unit, you have the coin. If someone challenges your esprit de corps … you have the coin.
Whether these stories are true or not is up for debate, but regardless the challenge coin has been part of military tradition for years, explained Raymond Aguilar, the safety officer on MCLB Barstow and retired Army master sergeant.
“For me, they are in recognition for doing something above and beyond,” Aguilar said. “They’re not presented to just anyone … it’s a limited few.”
Aguilar and Wolcott both agree that challenge coins are a memorable and inexpensive way to recognize someone on the spot.
“Limited edition coins may cost more, but (challenge coins) are generally three to five dollars,” Wolcott added.
Aguilar designed a coin to give out on behalf of the base safety office.
“It’s important to recognize people for doing right … they will be more likely to do it again,” Aguilar explained.
Wolcott and Aguilar both display numerous challenge coins in their offices, as do many other service members.
Corporal Bryanna Kessler, a stableman on MCLB Barstow, for example, takes pride in a coin given to her during the 1st Marine Division’s Bodfish campout.
“It was given to me by a retired Marine who was with 7th Marines, and the president of the campout committee,” Kessler explained. “It’s normally only given to Marines who deploy within 7th Marines; I am the first female to have received one.”
No matter where challenge coins originated from, or whether they were given as part of membership within a unit or a form of recognition, challenge coins are important to their possessors. They are something that uphold military tradition, regardless of service or rank.