It’s curious — I just watched an episode of Criminal Minds where Morgan gives a child a military challenge coin, but I’ve never seen it even mentioned in TV shows specifically dealing with the military. Yet, the challenge coin is very much a product of the military.
When I arrived at my duty station, my squad leader gave me a challenge coin for the battalion our company was under. He said was part of the espirit de corps about being in the military:
“But more commonly, military coins have become a symbol of affiliation that’s used to boost morale, foster esprit de corps, and honor service.”
Military Coin Check
One of the things my squad leader told me was that I should carry the coin with me at all times. Anyone could “coin” me to see if I had it. If I couldn’t produce the coin, then I owed push ups or a six pack of beer.
One day, I wandered into my platoon sergeant’s office and happened to notice when he opened a drawer that the coin was inside. Being the bad private I was, I went back and told my squad leader. He waited until the platoon sergeant was outside of the office and coined him. Of course, the platoon sergeant didn’t have a coin and ended up owing a six pack.
Change to how military coins were handed out
From the time I came in the military to about a year and half later, what the army did with the coin evolved into something quite different. The next time I saw coins given out, it was during Desert Storm, after the ground war had started.
They were given in place of giving a military award. I remember at the time thinking that the military was being awfully cheap with the awards if they were using coins instead. More likely, it was because the awards were something would help a soldier get promoted, and as a default, all soldiers participating in Desert Storm started out with five awards. It’s possible the leadership saw this as balancing things out.
From that time, while I was in the military, challenge coins were never given out to me again because I was part of a squad or company. However, I was given them as an award, and I also purchased some. It was a really big deal to get one from a flag officer, which was a general or an admiral. They’ve also been adopted by police departments, fire departments, and government agencies — check out the spy coin from the CIA. You can even find them for some corporations and universities.
Because, honestly, they’re pretty cool anyway.