Challenge coins have a long history in military ranks, as far back as the Roman Empire soldiers were rewarded by presenting them with coins to recognize their achievements. According to most military historians, challenge coins entered military service in the USA around World War one.
As one famous story reas, before the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. Some were wealthy scions attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit in mid-term to join the war.
In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. One young pilot placed the medallion in a small leather pouch that he wore about his neck. Shortly after acquiring the medallion, the pilot’s aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was forced to land behind enemy lines and was immediately captured by a German patrol. In order to discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. In the meantime, he was taken to a small French town near the front. Taking advantage of a bombardment that night, he escaped. However, he was without personal identification. He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian attire and reached the front lines. With great difficulty, he crossed no-man’s land. Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost. Saboteurs had plagued the French in the sector. They sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothes. Not recognizing the young pilot’s American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. He had no identification to prove his allegiance, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners and one of his French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine. Source: GlobalSecurity.org
There are many war stories regarding the practice and use of challenge coins. What it comes down to though, is that this is a special gift to those who have served others. From military service, to public services such as fire fighting, law enforcement, EMT’s and other of our brave heroes in the world, this is a special way to reward them for their service, and to create bonds with their team who they serve with.
The tradition of a challenge is the most common way to ensure that members are carrying their unit’s coin. The rules of a challenge are not always standardized for a unit or a group, and may vary between organizations. The challenge only applies to those members that have been given a coin formally by their team or military unit. This may lead to some controversy when challenges are initiated between members of different organizations and is not recommended. The tradition of the coin challenge is meant to be a source of morale in a unit, and forcing the challenge can cause a reverse effect. The act of challenging is called a “Coin Check” and is usually loudly announced.
Challenge coins are also exchanged outside the military. NASCAR, the NFL, cadets of the Civil Air Patrol, Eagle Scouts and World Series of Poker all have their own challenge coins. They are also becoming popular with police departments, fire departments and fraternal organizations.
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