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NEWS | Feb. 3, 2012

Flip of a coin: a look into challenge-coin history

By Airman 1st Class Ryan Throneberry Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs

The United States military has many traditions and legacies, some of which are difficult to trace back to their roots.

One of the most widely-known military traditions is presenting challenge coins which has become a form of recognition for outstanding service.

Historians have a difficult time tracing this particular tradition back to its roots, but for centuries coins have been an important part of military service.

The first military coins to make their debut in recorded history date back to the Roman Empire era. Roman leaders had coins minted in tribute to what they considered glorious victories. These coins were used as currency following these successful military campaigns.

The first military-themed coins to appear in American culture were initiated at the onset of the Civil War.

Army leaders created and distributed tokens during the Civil War as a form of payment or meal ticket for the soldiers.

One famous coin from this era features a flag with the Phrygian cap, the red cap on the current U.S. Army seal. The coin bares the words, "If anyone tries to tear the American flag down, shoot him on the spot." The quote is attributed to Maj. Gen. John Adams Dix, the namesake of Fort Dix and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury at the time.

Military coins designed to commemorate significant events began around the same time when a coin was minted following the sinking of the USS Monitor, the first ironclad warship ever built, in 1862.

One widely-known yet unsubstantiated story in challenge-coin lore takes place during World War I. American volunteers joined newly-formed flying squadrons in France. A wealthy lieutenant had solid bronze medallions made for his wingmen to commemorate their service together. The enemy downed the lieutenant's plane behind German lines where he was immediately captured by an enemy patrol. The Germans took all of his personal items except for the bronze medallion which he wore in a small leather pouch around his neck. An air raid that night gave the lieutenant an opportunity to escape. The lieutenant then made the difficult journey back into France. The French, thinking he was a spy, prepared to execute him on the spot. The lieutenant had no way to identify himself as an ally. He showed the medallion to his captors who recognized the unit emblem, effectively buying him enough time to confirm his identity. Luckily for the young lieutenant, instead of shooting him, they gave him a bottle of wine as a sign of friendship.

The only documented start of the modern-day coining practice began in 1969 during the Vietnam War with the 10th Special Forces Group. The group's commander, Col. Vernon E. Greene, was the first commander documented to mint a unit coin. Greene used coins to reward his soldiers in recognition of their outstanding acts.

The idea for a unit coin took hold. Today coins can be found in every branch of service at nearly every echelon. Throughout the coin's history, the military community has instigated and refined numerous unwritten laws pertaining to this coveted award. Many of these rules are universal, spanning branches of service and ranks, while the penalties for dropping a coin- or not carrying one- may vary. The most widely-accepted challenge-coin rule states if a group of servicemembers goes out for an evening, whoever does not have a coin on hand must buy a round of drinks for the entire party.

Today, the tradition of presenting a coin can be summed up as a physical representation of a job well done.

"Receiving a coin from a three-star general was an experience I will never forget," said Airman 1st Class Zach Wodaege, an 87th Air Base Wing Judge Advocate military justice paralegal who hails from Maple Valley, Wash. "It made me feel as though all the work I do on a day-to-day basis is not in vain and to be recognized is awesome."

Commanders and other leaders often enjoy presenting coins to worthy recipients to express their gratitude to people exhibiting exceptional effort.

"As a commander, my coins afford me the opportunity to recognize outstanding performance as it occurs and in front of the individual's peers," said Army Col. Mark Wilhite, Walson Medical Support Element commander. "The ability to demonstrate this recognition builds espirit-de-corps and unit cohesion."