A challenge coin is a small coin, token, or medallion that is traditionally engraved with a unit or organization’s insignia. One example of this is the challenge coin from non-commissioned officer’s academy in Fort Reed, Virginia. The back of the non-commissioned officer’s challenge coin contains the crest of the different unit organizations located on Fort Reed.
Another challenge coin is the one from the 235 infantry battalion, otherwise known as cacti. The back of this coin bears the unit motto, “Take Arms,” as well as the ranks of those who would present the coin. Examples of the ranks that can usually be found at the back of a cacti challenge coin are the ranks of lieutenant colonel or command sergeant major.
Well, here’s the most common story – challenge coins came into existence during World War I. American volunteers from all over the country dropped out of schools, such as Harvard and Yale, to join the war effort. In one of these squadrons, a lieutenant bought medallions made of bronze to be presented to the members of the unit. These medallions contain the unit’s insignia, which distinguish the member’s service and membership to the unit.
A pilot from the same organization carried the coin inside a pouch that he wore around his neck. During a mission, he was shot down over France and was capture by the Germans. The Germans who captured the pilot took everything: his identification, uniform, etc. However, they did not take the challenge coin around his neck. After several months planning, the pilot finally managed to escape his enemy captors.
He manages to make it to the outskirts of a small town in France where he was quickly captured by the local militia. This militia that had captured him, not being affiliated with the enemy forces, thought he was warning the enemy forces. When he was about to get executed by the militia, he produced his coin. Upon careful inspection and verification, the local militia found out that the pilot belonged to a friendly force unit and he was returned home to the United States, thus his life being saved by the challenge coin.
Another story which relates to the origin of the challenge coin was during the Vietnam War. Soldiers of the Vietnam War very rarely had any sort of down time, so it was considered a commodity. Much of this time was spent writing letters home, catching up on sleep, or drinking in small local bars.
It was traditional for these men to carry around the bullets for the weapon that they use in their pockets. The bullets were often produced at the local hooch in challenge for drinks. The soldier who gets the largest round was the one who would win, and the soldier with the smallest round would then buy the drinks for the challenger.
With the danger of these rounds sitting in the hooch and the fear of them going off, the higher-ups then had the idea of changing it into something a little less volatile. This is where the challenge coin came in.
The idea was that the challenge coin could be used at any time in a manner called challenging. Every person must have their coin on them at all times. When you challenge someone, both you and the person who you’re challenging must slap your respective coins on the table and they remove your hands.
The owner of the coin with the highest rank is then the winner of the challenge. The owner of the coin with the lowest rank, or any member who has forgotten their challenge coin must buy drinks not only for the member with highest-ranked, but also the whole crowd. Thus the tradition of challenging using challenge coins was conceived.
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