The challenge coin is a coin or medallion given by the military unit’s leader to his members. The tradition started during the World War I when a wealthy officer distributed specially designed coins to his troops before they embarked on their military assignments. It was called challenge coin because any member can “challenge” another member of the unit by demanding to see the coin. The coin was supposed to be with the member at all times.
The challenge coin was not just for keepsakes or mementos of the soldiers during the war. It stands for many things. Here are some of them.
Identification: The challenge coins bear the symbols, motto, trademark or specific design of a unit that would give an identity for the unit itself. It is given exclusively to the members of that particular unit only. It is sometimes equivalent to an ID or badge when no other means of identification is possible. It identifies which group or unit you belong. The coin serves as a token of how much they value the unit and how they take pride in being a member of that particular military unit. It also serves as their form of identification as to what unit they belong. The origin of the challenge coin is said to be because of this reason. When the young soldier was captured by the enemy, the coin was recognized and he was delivered from execution.
Allegiance: The challenge coins are tokens of allegiance or devotion to the unit. The members of the unit were each given a coin or medallion bearing the unit’s special design, insignia or motto as per the unit’s specification. The members are expected to remain loyal to the group. Sometimes, the members were assigned or promoted to new units and again receive a new challenge coin. They usually kept these as memento. Their allegiance remained to all the units they belonged to.
Brotherhood: The challenge coins symbolize brotherhood among the members of a unit. They consider each other as part of their own family. Whatever the need of one member, the others try to help. Sometimes, they treat each other more than blood brothers do. Even after their duty as soldiers, members of the same unit remain in contact with each other.
Camaraderie: The challenge coin is a unique tradition, which was exclusive to the military people before. It aims to promote harmony, unity and good relation among the members of the unit. It fosters a spirit of good friendship and fellowship. It also helps establish or boost morale among them. Although the act of challenging may seem offensive to others, but the truth is, it served to strengthen the bond of members to one another.
Appreciation: One of the accounts on the origin why challenge coins were distributed was to show appreciation for the soldier’s sacrifice and help in ensuring the safety of the country and maintaining its freedom. It was given too when a soldier did an exemplary performance during a battle. After a day’s battle, the soldiers who did very well were given the regular pay day and some bonus coins that are specially minted. This was the commanding officer’s way of thanking the soldiers.
During the Boer War, the secret handshake was initiated by the non-commissioned officers to appreciate the mercenaries hired during those days. They would publicly call the mercenary soldier and inside their palm, they would transfer the medal to the soldier in a secret handshake.
Recognition: The challenge coin was used as reward for noteworthy achievement and performance of a soldier during his time in a battle or war. Although most of the time, the medals of valor were awarded to the commanding officers, they were aware that the front liners were more deserving of these medals. In their own initiative, most of the commanding unit leaders distributed the coins to all their members as their way of recognizing the contribution of each soldier to the success of the battle.