A while back, I was hanging out with a buddy of mine who was in the military. He was talking about different awards, and then I heard him mention the term "challenge coin."
As a civilian, I have never heard of military challenge coins up until this point. I've heard of Purple Hearts, Medals of Honor, and even have heard of chevrons meaning something in the military world. But challenge coins? Nope.
To find out what these coins are supposed to do, I did a little research. Check out what I learned below...
What are military challenge coins, anyway?
Military challenge coins are specialized awards given to military personnel who are able to overcome a challenge that is put forth by higher-ups. In the past, they were used as proof that you were a member of the military and that you were competent in what you did.
Challenge coins often will have customized prints, unique patterns, and will typically be slightly larger than currency. They are rewards and prizes that are designed to stand out while remaining subtle.
Military challenge coins are also way older than the United States is.
Historians have shown that challenge coins were tradition in militaries way earlier than you'd expect. The tradition of awarding excellent soldiers for service with challenge coins started in the Renaissance period.
Much like today, these were customized coins that had patterns, pictures, or special markings on them. All things considered, the entire tradition of issuing out challenge coins hasn't changed much over the centuries.
The United States has way more traditions involving challenge coins than you'd think.
In the United States military, keeping your challenge coin on you is a tradition that's taken pretty seriously. In fact, it's a tradition that's designed to potentially save your life.
Carrying your military challenge coins as proof of membership in the military is a tradition that stems all the way back to World War I. After an American soldier was caught wandering around without identification, French allies assumed that he was a saboteur.
The French were ready to kill him. He showed them the challenge coin he kept in his pocket, which in turn, gave away that he was an ally. Rather than kill the soldier, the French offered him a bottle of wine. Ever since then, it was traditional to carry a challenge coin as a form of ID.
In the United States, the President traditionally has the right to design their own challenge coins—and receive them.
Presidents occasionally will issue out their own challenge coins to give to military members, or to use as a commemoration of a special moment in history. Presidents Clinton and Obama have even minted their own challenge coins for foreign personnel as a way to say "Welcome!"
Throughout most of American history, the Presidential military challenge coins had "E Pluribus Unum" written on them as a way to remind soldiers and other recipients that they are "Of Many, One."
(On a related note, Trump changed this and caused an uproar. He issued out a coin designed with the "MAGA" phrase and his face instead of anything remotely traditional.)
There's even a tradition called "Challenging" in most branches of the military.
"Challenging" is the request to show the military challenge coin issued to you within a set amount of time. Depending on which branch or organization gave you the coin, the rules behind what you're expected to do will vary.
Most of the time, getting challenged means you will have to show your coin as it is on your body—but in a respectful way. Most of the time, challenge coins won't be allowed on your belt buckle or keyring. A necklace, though, is okay.
Military challenge coins can also get you a free drink.
There's a certain way that coins are traded, and depending on where you go, the rules change. For example, if you're challenged, showing that you have the highest-ranking coin can get you a free drink. Some groups also have a tradition involving the attempt to steal military challenge coins. According to Wikipedia:
"If someone is able to steal a challenge coin, everyone in the group must buy a drink for that person."
Generally speaking, you do not have to be a military member to get military challenge coins anymore.
Challenge coins may have started off as a military-only thing, but they haven't stayed that way. They're now fairly traded throughout circles that have high numbers of military members in them. In fact, some recent Presidents even use them as welcome tokens to esteemed diplomats.
That being said, they are still most common with military members and still hold a lot of clout between them all. The US Air Force, for example, offers a "coining ceremony" with military challenge coins to all cadets who graduate from their program.
So, don't be surprised if you find a military spouse with a challenge coin on them. It's probably because their spouse had an extra one lying around the home.
Though the tradition of military challenge coins may have gotten more casual, their original use is still widely recognized.
People still get military challenge coins as rewards for acts of valor, and the reason why is because it's a known motivator. Some coins carry a serious amount of respect with them, simply because of what you had to do in order to earn them.
Civilians should never turn up their noses at a military challenge coin, even if it seems plain. They aren't just collectibles; they mean something for the people who have to earn them.
Some groups even have their own version of non-military challenge coins.
Spurred on by the pride that they bring out in military personnel, a number of civilian groups decided to replicate the tradition in their own circles. Challenge coins can also be found with a number of motorcycle groups, including the Harley Owners Group.
Certain movies also have used challenge coins minted in their own to thank military personnel for their help. This actually happened most recently with Iron Man 2.
Needless to say, military challenge coins are kind of a mainstream, pop culture thing, too. They've been featured in movies, books, as well as screenplays because of their close affiliation to military tradition.
Basically, military challenge coins are one of many different traditions that often fly under the radar.
We all know that there are tons of different military traditions that are both unusual and unique. The thing is, most civilians will not know half of them—which is why I had no idea that military challenge coins even existed until lately.
That doesn't make it any less important, nor any less fascinating. If anything, it just goes to show how much more people should try to learn about their country's military traditions. It's really that cool.