History of Military Challenge Coins
No one really knows when military challenge coins were first introduced, but there are several stories about their origin. Take your pick which story you choose to believe.
World War I Challenge Coin Legend
According to Wikipedia, the most common story places the origin during World War I.
In one American flying squadron, a wealthy lieutenant wanted to give each member of his unit a memento. So he ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. The lieutenant put his own medallion in a small leather pouch that he wore around his neck. A short time later, his plane was shot down over Germany. He survived, but he was captured by the Germans. In order to discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his personal identification – except for the small leather pouch around his neck. He was taken to a small French town near the front. He escaped that night. He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian clothing. Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost. Saboteurs sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothing. Not recognizing the young pilot’s American accent, the French thought he was a saboteur and prepared to execute him. He had no identification, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners, and one of his French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine, probably as a form of reparation for his initial treatment.
Back at his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion or coin at all times. This was accomplished through a challenge in the following manner:
- A challenger would ask to see the medallion
- If the challenged could not produce a medallion, they were required to buy a drink for the member who challenged them
- If the challenged member produced a medallion, then the challenging member was required to pay for the drink
This tradition continued throughout the war and for many years after the war while surviving members of the squadron were still alive.
Word War II Challenge Coin Legend
According to another story, challenge coins date back to World War II and were first used by Office of Strategic Service personnel who were deployed in Nazi-held France.
The coins were simply a local coin used as a “bona fides” during a personal meeting to help verify a person’s identity. There would be specific aspects such as type of coin, date of the coin, etc. that were examined by each party. This helped prevent infiltration into the meeting by a spy who would have to have advance knowledge of the meeting time and place, as well as what coin was to be presented as bona fides.
Vietnam War Challenge Coin Legend
According to a DOD Live, Air Force Historical Research Agency archivist Barry Spink believes the tradition of the military challenge coin started during the Vietnam War.
Spink said he’d been told in the 1990s that the tradition started in Vietnam, when an Army infantry-run bar tried to keep non-infantrymen away by forcing “outsiders” to buy drinks for the whole bar if they couldn’t prove they had been in combat. The “proof” started with enemy bullets, then got a little out of control with grenades, rockets and unexploded ordnance. So a coin-sized item emblazoned with the unit’s insignia became the accepted form of proof.
This tradition – now known as a coin check – continues today, hence it being called a “challenge” coin.
The tradition of a challenge is the most common way to ensure that members are carrying their unit’s coin. The rules of a challenge are not always formalized and may vary between organizations. The act of challenging is called a “Coin Check” and is usually loudly announced.
The challenge, which can be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar. In noisy environments, continuously rapping the challenge coin on a surface may initiate the challenge. (Accidentally dropping a challenge coin is considered to be a deliberate challenge to all present.) Everyone being challenged must immediately produce their coin. Anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who has their challenge coin. If, on the other hand, everyone challenged is able to produce their coin, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for the group.
A few variants of the rules include the following:
- If someone is able to steal a challenge coin, everyone in the group must buy a drink for that person
- During a challenge, everyone in the group must buy a drink for the holder of the highest-ranking coin, where a coin’s rank is determined by the rank of the giver of the challenge coin
- Some units provide strict time limits to respond to a challenge
Challenge Coins Today
The challenge coin tradition has spread to other military units, in all branches of service, and even to non-military organizations like police and firefighters, as well as the United States Congress, which produces challenge coins for members of Congress to give to constituents. Even the White House gives out challenge coins!
Today, challenge coins are given to members upon joining an organization, as an award to improve morale, and sold to commemorate special occasions or as fundraisers. In the Air Force, military training instructors award an airman’s coin to new enlisted personnel upon completion of their Basic Military Training and to new officers upon completion of Officer Training School.
UAV Challenge Coins
The Ukrainian American Veterans present commemorative coins to UAV members, dignitaries, clergy and others. They are typically given in recognition of significant service or a symbol of friendship. Keynote speakers are often presented with UAV commemorative coins, and the coins are presented in a polished wooden coin box.
On 23 September 2019, UAV Commander Ihor Rudko presented Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a UAV challenge coin during his visit to the United Nations.
Purchase a UAV Challenge Coin
Don’t be caught without your challenge coin! You can purchase your own UAV Challenge Coin from the UAV Quartermaster shop.
The Ukrainian American Veterans (UAV) Monument coin commemorates the dedication of the UAV National Monument on 3 October 2015. The front of coin features the UAV emblem with Ukrainian American Veterans written around the perimeter. The back side of coin shows the UAV monument with United States of America and the names of the branches of the United States Armed Forces written around the perimeter.