You may have in the past stumbled upon unique looking bronze or silver coins with various insignia on them and thought to yourself “What is this thing?”, “What does thing do?”, or maybe even “Why does my grandfather have collections of these?”. Those things with symbols on them are called challenge coins, and one of the most common ones that are made and distributed are called military coins.
Military coins – or sometimes referred to as memorial coins or unit challenge coins – usually have 1.5 inch to 2 inch diameters and have numerous styles and sizes that vary.
There is still debate on the real origin of the coins and a number of stories have circulated around the issue.
Some people claim that during the 40s, when the Lodge Act allowed citizens with other nationalities to join the U.S. Army, many foreigners joined the 10th Special Forces Group and that presented the unit with a problem because the applicants varied in proficiency in English. To make identification easier for the group, they produced a special coin that bears the insignia of the unit to prove they are a member.
Another story that started to circulate dates the coins back to the time of ancient Rome, when foot soldiers would be given coins (some of which are minted, to be kept as a memento rather than be used for spending) for their service to the crown.
There is also a story about Colonel William F Cody (also known for his moniker ‘Buffalo Bill’) who had coins specially made to be given to those who have served under him during the Korean conflict era.
One of the most detailed theories about the coins is that of wealthy lieutenant of a flying squadron who fought during World War I. This lieutenant had ordered coins made of solid bronze that carried the emblem of his squadron. Each member carried the coin in his person, as did the said lieutenant.
Unfortunately for him, his squadron’s aircraft was shot down by German forces leading to his arrest. He luckily escaped, and to add to his good fortune he still had his coin. The lieutenant ended up in French custody where he was thought of as a spy and about to be executed, but one of the soldiers recognized the symbol on his coin and allowed him to return to his country.
Many believe that for this reason the soldiers carry military coins with their squadron’s insignias to signify identification in case of confrontation that they are to encounter.
The coin itself has evolved along with the advancement of time coming off from simple material like brass. Today’s coin collections out in the market have countless designs and it is even possible to buy those that are custom made to fit one’s likings in texture, material, size, color, insignia, etc.
Some hi-tech made modern coins have photographic inserts for the more sentimental customers, while others even have 3D images in them! And to make it even more personalized, the clients can provide discernible text to add to their coin.
One of the most prominent people to display his collection of military coins is former US president Bill Clinton, who had several racks of challenge coin collections even seen in the background of his official portrait in the White House. The coins are currently displayed in the Clinton library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Current US president Barrack Obama also had his share of memorial coins in 2009 when he placed the said coins on the graves of military men who were killed during the Fort Hood shooting in Texas.