Why Are Military Challenge Coins Important?

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If you’ve spent much time around a veteran or active service member, you might have noticed that they carry around a challenge coin.

Military challenge coins mean different things to different people, but they’re an important piece of military culture across all branches of service. The way they’re used now might not be the same way they’ve always been used, but it’s important to know the history and the current reality of challenge coins to fully appreciate them.

We’re going to take a look at challenge coin importance in this article, giving you some insight into their history and what they might mean for the service member in your life.

Let’s get started.

Understanding Military Challenge Coins

To start, it’s important to note what a challenge coin is.

Challenge coins are coins of different sizes, made of different materials, that have some engraving that relates to a part of a service member’s history. These coins are given out to the group at large or handed to smaller divisions of soldiers who took part in particular missions.

Challenge coins may also be involved in the culture of the police force, firefighters, and many other divisions of public service. You might even find challenge coins involved in places of work, sports teams, and more.

That said, they originate in the armed services. Some challenge coins can be given to specific individuals as a sign of honor. The president of the United States might be given a challenge coin as a sign of distinction, for example.

They’re akin to medals of honor, although they’re not as officially recognized or respected. Challenge coins fall somewhere between an official sign of respect and a colloquial token of respect among friends.

The meaning assigned to the challenge coins depends on the person who receives them, though. Someone might cherish the challenge coin given by someone who’s no longer with us more than they love the coin given by their commander.

On a fundamental level, coins today are given to honor and show respect. There’s a lot more involved with the culture of challenge coins, though, and the first place to look is the history books.

The Origins Of Challenge Coins

There’s a longstanding story about the first set of challenge coins ever given to a group of soldiers. It’s one that’s buried in history, though, and there aren’t any living who would be old enough to remember the events or know anyone involved.

The history books might uncover some information that validates or refutes the following story, but the fact remains that it’s a good one, and it might be the origin story of challenge coins.

In World War One, there wasn’t a standing tradition of offering challenge coins or other emblems to members of particular groups. Sure, there were recognized ways to mark and honor soldiers, but the group-minded giving of coins as signs of unity wasn’t yet there.

Groups were more stratified before WW1. Society was very divided, and the wealthy didn’t engage much with those who had less. Further, rapid industrialization and the growth of cities brought people together, but that didn’t mean that they were fond of each other or spent much time together.

For the most part, groups of individuals in the United States stuck pretty close to those with the same backgrounds and experiences as themselves. When the world war came around, though, those barriers had to come down.

People were forced to work together to defeat a common enemy because the consequences would be so dire if they didn’t. This meant that some members of a squadron might be wealthy and others might not have much at all.

One such wealthy soldier was the one to create the first set of coins.

The First Squadron to Use Challenge Coins

This wealthy individual had custom challenge coins created for all of the men in his squadron. The coins had an engraving that was unique to their group and wouldn’t be confused with any other set of coins.

They were unique and meant to be a sign of respect and unity to the men in that group. The men loved the coins and took them as a point of pride. In fact, they showed the coins to everyone around, and all of the other soldiers in the area knew that those coins were a sign of that particular group.

They kept them on their person at all times, regardless of the circumstances. Then, one of the soldiers was flying over enemy territory in Germany. He was shot down, landing somewhere behind enemy lines before being captured by German soldiers.

As he was held hostage, the building he was in was demolished by French and American planes. In the rubble, though, he managed to escape without taking on too much damage.

His mission now was to get to the battlefront and find a way to cross over into friendly territory. That’s a difficult thing to do, though, considering that much of WW1 was fought in the way that many battles before were fought.

Two opposing sides held down a line facing one another, firing across No Man’s Land to try and push their enemy back. Now, wars are more disparate and there’s not always a clear line to be drawn.

This soldier, though, had to approach that line and make his way across.

The Luck of The Coin

Disguised in German attire, the man made his way through the German front and found a way to cross No Man’s Land.

He was then captured by French soldiers as he pleaded his nationality and allegiance to their cause. The men weren’t convinced, though, as the idea of a foreign spy wasn’t too far-fetched. He could have been there to execute an enemy mission, so he couldn’t be trusted.

He was going to be killed. Before he was killed, though, his last attempt at saving his life was to show the coin his fellow soldier gave him. He explained its meaning and tried to prove that he was an American.

Somehow, one of the French soldiers had spoken to one of the other men in this man’s squadron. He’d seen the coin and knew what it meant to the individuals who carried it.

He also knew that there were no other coins like it, and it would have been impossible for anyone to have one. That connection saved the man’s life.

When he returned to his men, he told the story of how the coin saved his life. Since then, the practice of keeping a coin on you at all times has carried through the ages on the off chance that it could save a soldier’s life.

What Does The “Challenge” Mean?

What is a challenge coin? The coins that started this tradition were just medallions, but there wasn’t any challenge associated with them.

Over time, there was a strong push for soldiers to keep their coins on them. It was both superstition and a sign of respect to have the coin on hand, and soldiers would challenge others in their group to present the coin at any given time.

The idea is that if you don’t have the coin on you, you’re required to do whatever the other soldier asks. Maybe you have to pull a stupid prank as punishment for forgetting your coin, or maybe you just have to do something embarrassing.

In a lot of cases, the punishment for not having a coin on hand was to buy a round for everyone at the bar. If your pals were feeling generous, you might just have to buy a round for them alone.

The pressure of the challenge was a great incentive for all soldiers to keep their coins on hand at any given time so that they wouldn’t have to embarrass themselves or spend too much money.

Usage Today

Now, the traditions and customs of challenge coins might be a little different. They’re still given out in a lot of cases, and military members often cherish and display their coins with pride.

The way they’re used might be similar to the ways they used to be, but it depends on the group you’re looking at and the specific circumstances. That said, it’s all based on the initial challenge coins made by that wealthy man so many years ago.

It’s almost impossible to know whether that story is true or if it’s just a myth. These coins started somehow, though, and what better way is there to build a superstition than to have your life saved by an inanimate object?

We might never know the truth about the origins, but sometimes the story behind something is a little more meaningful when it falls somewhere between myth and reality.

Want to Learn More about Challenge Coin History?

Military challenge coins come with a rich history of tradition and storytelling. There’s a lot more to learn about them if you’re interested.

We’re here to help. Explore our site for more ideas on challenge coins, customizing challenge coins, military history, and much more.

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