In World War I, the story goes, an airman was shot down over enemy-occupied France and taken prisoner. The airman was able to escape and was ready to return to friendly territory when he was captured by French soldiers. They knew that German soldiers were dressing up as Allied soldiers trying to infiltrate Allied lines. The airman insisted he was an Allied airman and produced this specially produced coin that showed his unit insignia. The French soldier recognized the insignia, had the airman checked out and subsequently freed.
That is the story of the first challenge coin. Did it really happen? I don’t know, but that is the story being told. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the challenge coin made its appearance again in the military. In fact, it was a collection of challenge coins presented to President Bill Clinton that really revived its art and history. He displayed many of the challenge coins behind his Oval Office desk on the credenza where they were usually noticed in photos and Oval Office addresses. Those challenge coins are now on display in his presidential library in Arkansas.
So what is a challenge coin? It is usually a 3/4″ or so specially designed and produced metal disk that features the unit insignia, motto and any other kind of special insignia important to the group that produced it. It is a matter of unit pride for each unit member to carry a challenge coin at all times. Why? Well, in case they are challenged, of course.
There are many variations of the rules of challenge, but generally the challenge is this, if a unit member is in a bar somewhere they can challenge other service members by tapping or showing their unit challenge coin. Anyone caught without a challenge coin of their own loses and is expected to pay for the first round of drinks for everyone else. If everyone produces a challenge coin, the one who challenged the others must pay for the first round. Another variation is that once the challenge is met by everyone, the one with the highest ranking challenge coin gets everyone else to buy the first round for them. Alternatively, challenge coins are hotly traded among many members, too.
The challenge coin has gone beyond just military members, though. Every government agency from the White House to the local police troop have produced their own versions of the challenge coins, too. The White House, for example, produces a unique presidential challenge coin for an overseas presidential trip. Each White House agency or department such as HMX-1, Air Force One, Communications, Secret Service, Camp David, Crawford, Texas, and every cabinet member has their own as well.
Many challenge coins are very distinctive and hard to come by. The official challenge coin of President Bush and Vice President Cheney are particularly valuable and hard to find. Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are very collectible, I hear.
I provided a few examples of my own here, limited mostly to the office of the president. If you collect challenge coins of the Executive Branch, I would like to hear from you. There are so many challenge coins available that I will have to limit the discussion to only those issued by the White House, cabinet members, and top government officials such as the Speaker of the House. I invite military and local agencies to begin a community on WorthPoint dedicated to their collectible challenge coin.
Maybe someday I’ll be able to challenge you successfully for a Sam Adams.