Not many people outside of the military know what the challenge coin is, but it has a rich and storied history within the US military. While “portrait coins” date back to ancient Rome and they worked as a similar concept, the modern idea of the challenge coin dates back about 100 years to World War I. Within the military, these coins are given to represent certain groups, units, events, and recognition. And, they are held in high esteem as well as greatly valued by members of the military. Here are four historical facts about challenge coins and their connection to the US military.
1. Beginnings in WWI
The most recognized beginning of the challenge coin originated during WWI. Per the US Department of Defense, an Army Air lieutenant gave each of his soldiers a brass coin with their unit engraved on it. When one soldier was taken prisoner by the Germans and stripped of his identification, that challenge coin was the thing that saved his life when the French could identify the soldier as American and not an enemy. The use of the challenge coin as a way to identify a soldier by their unit began then.
2. The Coin Check in Vietnam
During the Vietnam era, the idea of the coin check began. Infantry bars didn’t like non-infantry coming into their bars, so they created the concept of the coin check. Someone would yell “coin check” and everyone would have to present their challenge coin to prove they were a soldier and had been in combat. If someone could not produce a challenge coin, then they would be expected to buy drinks for everyone else in the bar.
3. The Secret Handshake
In 2011, the current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, visited troops stationed throughout Afghanistan. As he spent time with various members of the military, he would often end the conversation with a handshake. It wasn’t until he walked away that soldiers realized he had secretly put a special Secretary of Defense challenge coin in their hands. Many people continue to carry on the tradition of handing out challenge coins in a bit of a cloak-and-dagger manner through a secret handshake.
4. The Oldest Coin to Still Exist
Per GTI, there is a challenge coin still in existence that has been the oldest confirmed. This coin was for the 17th Infantry Regiment and it depicted a side profile image of a Buffalo on one side. It also includes two sets of dates: 1812, when the regiment was formed, and 1950-1958 when the regiment did their tours in Korea. While we know that challenge coins date further back in the history of the military, these buffalo coins are the oldest still in existence.
Challenge coins have a long and interesting history in the United States Military and they serve an important role as a symbol of honor, brotherhood, and events that military personnel experience on a regular basis. Challenge coins can be designed to meet any event and these days they are even used by civilian leaders for certain events and situations.