Custom Challenge Coins are medallions or coins minted of metal alloys and bear customized designs, predominantly military in nature, embossed on them. These symbolize the bonds of brotherhood among the fighting men. The coins’ origin was in the American Armed Forces – the Army, Navy, and Air Force, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard and the component units of all these arms – and is almost limited to them even today. Each unit has its own mint with its own coat of arms, motto and other symbols that identifies it uniquely. This is officially funded by the military.
Historically, soldiers of the Roman Empire were rewarded with coins for their achievements. Even earlier, a Greek soldier was buried with the single coin that he had brought from home. It was the fare to be paid to the boatman Charon for the ride across the river Styx to reach the shore of afterlife.
An apocryphal story of the origin of the US Coins says that in World War I some of the volunteers to the US flying squadrons were independently wealthy and some even gave up studies at Ivy League colleges to join. One such enlistee had solid bronze medallions struck with his squadron’s insignia and presented one to every member. One recipient, a pilot, wore it around his neck in a leather pouch. During action his craft was hit and he baled out behind enemy lines. Arrested by the Germans, stripped of all identification papers and taken to the French border, he escaped during the night’s bombardment. Crossing the line, he found a French Patrol who took him to be a saboteur and nearly executed him. He then produced his coin the insignia on which was recognized and he was saved.
Other stories place the origin during World War II, Korean War or the Vietnam War. The official patronage, however, began during the Vietnam War.
The Custom Challenge Coins are conferred in appreciation of special achievement by the unit commander and are highly valued by the recipients. A special case is of President Obama placing specially minted Commander’s Coins on the memorials of soldiers slain in the shooting at the Military base, Fort Hood.
They are also mutually exchanged by members of a unit visiting another – in the official portrait of President Clinton at the White House a banked mass of coins are seen behind the Oval Office desk. He had received them from various US servicemen while in office. The US President is the Commander-in- Chief of the country’s armed forces and also various state militias.
The term ‘Challenge’ refers to the fact that the coins establish a person’s identity as member of a unit or command when challenged – similar to other tokens such as the Rings of the Free Masons. The difference is that the Masons are a secret Society whose rings are cryptic symbols that only members may recognize, whereas the Custom Challenge Coins proudly bear the military insignia for easy identification.
The Canadian and the Swiss have also adopted the Challenge Coin tradition now.