Home / News / Morale, Allegiance and Drinking: How Military Challenge Coins Evolved and Spread

Morale, Allegiance and Drinking: How Military Challenge Coins Evolved and Spread

Other historians believe the tradition began in an infantry-run bar in Vietnam, where patrons were required to present enemy bullets or their challenge coin upon entrance.

In keeping with either narrative, challenge coins still earn service members their share of alcohol. Military members often tap their challenge coins upon meeting in a bar — shouting, “Coin check!” — and anyone who either cannot produce one or is the last to show it buys the first round of drinks.

How has it since evolved?

Challenge coin traditions have climbed to the highest ranks of the military. In 2011, Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary, shook hands with United States troops in Afghanistan, passing duplicates of his challenge coin to each of them as a token of gratitude.

All presidents since Bill Clinton have also carried distinctly designed challenge coins to present to foreign dignitaries and military personnel. President George W. Bush often gave them to injured troops returning from the Middle East; President Barack Obama made a tradition of passing them to service members stationed at the stairs of Air Force One.


Cmdr. Mark Vislay, then the commanding officer at Air Station Sitka in Alaska, giving a challenge coin to Martin Johnson Sr., a World War II veteran, during a dinner honoring veterans in 2015.

James Poulson(/The Daily Sitka Sentinel, via Associated Press

But largely because of custom-design coin companies, challenge coins have seeped beyond the military to other government agencies and offices: Secretaries of transportation and agriculture have designed their own coins; so have senators and even local fire departments.

“How and when that jump to civilian life began, we don’t exactly know,” Mr. English said. “I’ve seen small companies throughout San Antonio with their own coins. I recently got one from a Boy Scout.”

Some consider the proliferation a symbol of solidarity with the American military. Others see it as the contorting of an honored ritual for bragging rights in Washington, collecting the coins as weighty business cards or displaying them as autographs.

Who funds the coins?

Challenge coins can cost $5 to $10 each, so agencies can spend thousands of dollars on the tokens each year. In some areas of government, leaders are said to purchase the coins out of their own personal accounts.

In the military, some units have booster clubs that generate money for challenge coins. Other commanders are authorized to purchase “morale boosters” with government funds, Mr. English said. The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment on challenge coin funding.

“If you buy a whole bunch coins and a new Mercedes, maybe that’s a problem,” Mr. English said. “Otherwise, folks are often supportive of keeping with the tradition.”

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News credit : Nytimes