Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Challenge Coins

According to numismatist Martin J. Price, monetary coinage was invented about 600 BCE as a form of bonus payments to Greek mercenaries.  “[As] bonus payments, the coins are more akin to gifts (or medals) than to coins as we know them.” (“Thoughts on the beginning of coinage,” in Studies in Numismatic Method Presented to Philip Grierson, Cambridge University Press, 1983).
Coin awarded by Texas State Guard Commanding General
Maj. Gen. Gerald "Jake" Betty
"Do your duty. Take care of your people. Go home with your honor."
(This is based on a prior publication for the Georgia Numismatic Association GNA Journal, Summer, 2002. The changes here resulted from further research and fact-checking.)

            Several series of denarius coins were struck specifically for Roman legions. The denarii issued by Marc Antony before his defeat at Actium are probably the most famous. Those coins show the legionary standards, and give their numeric designations. Other Roman coins also carry the counterstamps of specific legions. Why they were counter-marked is not clear to us today. But clear enough among the dozen or so issues are the coins of Legio X Fretensis, which was stationed in Judaea and Syria.
Coin awarded by the commander of Domestic Operations,
Texas Military Department,
Gen. Patrick M. Hamilton
            A challenge coin (also called a “unit coin”) is a medal or medalet, as large as a silver dollar or as small as a 25-cent quarter.  The coin carries the insignia and motto of a military unit. They are intended as awards for singular service, and are seldom granted to large bodies.  Each member of a squad or platoon may be given one for a team service. Being awarded to each member of a battalion is unheard of so far. In any case, the coin is awarded individually. The preferred method is for the coin to be enclosed in a handshake. It is not a public ceremony, but a private acknowledgment from a leader to those who have demonstrated exceptional service. The coin is a symbol of membership in a select group.
            Today, the enameled medalets are usually awarded by company commanders, or the “tops” of grades or occupations, such as sergeant majors or chief warrant officers.  They are called “challenge coins” because the soldier caught without theirs will have to buy the next round of drinks or perform some other ritual.  Researchers can point to several origins for them.
            Challenge coins were independently invented by US soldiers in Germany who had “pfennig checks” to see who was carrying the small coins of post-war West Germany. During Viet Nam, the check was for 1-dong aluminum coin of 1964. Thirty years later, soldiers were “coined” to see who had an Iraqi dinar.
Coin awarded by the Senior Enlisted Advisor
to the Commanding General TXSG
Sgt. Maj. Brian Becknel
            Writing for the NCOA Journal (Nov-Dec 2000) Vince Patton, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, placed the origin of the unit coin in the Second Boer War. According MCPOCG Patton, a regimental sergeant major would call his unit to muster in order to recognize the distinct bravery of one or more of the irregular volunteers who were not eligible for regular military awards.  The RSM would give “a firm, steady, and handsome handshake” to the soldier while palming to him a six pence.  The silver 6p of 1899 was about like a US dime of the same era: it was not intended as payment, but as a symbol.  They became the regimental coins for those who had served with valor.
            The history provided by Maj. Jeanne Fraser Brooks in the August 1994 issue of Soldiers (the official US DoD magazine) is the one most often found in citations such as Wikipedia.  If you put “challenge coin jeanne brooks” in your search engine you can find out-takes from her article on many Internet sites dedicated to challenge coins. Brooks found the roots of the unit medalet in the story of an American pilot during World War I.

“In one squadron a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze carrying the squadron emblem for every member of his squadron. He himself carried his medallion in a small leather pouch around his neck.” Shot down by the Germans and captured, his papers were taken. He soon managed his escape. Without identification, caught anew by French farmers, he might have been shot as a German spy, but he still carried the squadron emblem. It saved his life. “Back at his squadron, it became a tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion or coin at all times.”

            Maj. Brooks also told the story of LTG William Wilson “Buffalo Bill” Quinn. When he was a colonel during the Korean War, he created medallions for his regiment. The facts are relayed, somewhat differently, on the “Together We Served” website, a private service for US veterans. 

Promoted to Colonel, he would later serve as the G2 for the Army's X Corps, but in January 1951 he was given command of the 17th Infantry Regiment. It was his first command of combat troops. The 17th Infantry had just received a new call sign-"Buffalo," and COL Quinn decided to call his troops the Buffaloes. The regiment mailed home press releases about the Buffaloes and a short time later war correspondents began to call him "Buffalo Bill." The name stuck. Clay Blair in The Forgotten War wrote: "Almost overnight the Buffaloes became famous. Hundreds of GIs requested a transfer to the outfit; some even went AWOL to join." (Read LTG Quinn’s full biography here.) )
Coin awarded by the Instructor Cadre
Officer Candidate School
of the Texas State Guard
"Ductus Exemplar"
            Other commanders later created their own medallions, among them the Green Berets. Slowly growing in awareness and familiarity over the decades, they blossomed in the post-9/11 military environment.  Unit coins spread from of the military to the allied communities of public safety and security responders.  Employees of the Department of Defense and the FBI are not alone in designing and purchasing team coins.  They are known to police departments and emergency medical transport firms. Coins have become so common that many people collect coins that they did not earn, trading duplicates with friends, and even buying them online. 


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