Modern Military Necessities
If you are in a bar that sound is an invitation, not the beginning of a childish joke.
It is the sound of a specially-struck medal tapped on the bar or table. The invitation is for all other members of a special group, usually of military elites, to prove their personal membership by showing a similar medal.
Woe be to any member who does not produce a medal from his pocket. He has to pay for a round of drinks!
The democratic practice possessing such a medal has grown among American military until now they are embraced by every rank, right up the chain of command. Even the highest officials participate. Generals, admirals, the civilian Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – even the President of the United States – each have their own “challenge coin.”
The “challenge” in the name is obvious even to a casual observer. Likewise “coin” might be obvious from their similarity to any monetary object. Perhaps a more apt designation is a “military pocket piece.” But they have become more than that and are as necessary a component of a military uniform as the owner’s dog-tags or dress blues.
Challenge coins are carried around the world. They are as prevalent on the battlefield as in the bar room. On the front line they are considered by their owners as the most powerful “good luck charm” they could carry into battle. They were prevalent in Desert Storm and current operations in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
They are also a powerful symbol of the military esprit-de-corps, the badge of membership in a special group, whether as few as a dozen-man unit or special force, or as wide as the entire U.S Navy. Or Army, or Air Force, or Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. Members of all forces have embraced this popular custom of carrying a metal memento as visible evidence of their participation, of their membership, of their belonging to a very special group.
Originated by military unit commanders who wished to increase morale, patriotism and unit spirit – and honor military service! – the medals are more likely created by those who will carry them. This, in contrast to medals of official nature, those designed by the Institute of Heraldry, intended to be worn as participation in military or naval campaigns, or awarded for heroic action, with formal ribbons and prescribed rules for display on a uniform.
Challenge coins are pocket pieces. Cloistered in a pocket until challenged to be brought to light. To declare “I am a member of a special unit.”
The custom has dramatically increased in the last quarter century of the 20th century and further blossomed in the 21st century. It has spread to become a military collectable. Individual members of a service may now order their own specially designed medal and distributed these to comrades, family and friends.
Exchanging and trading challenge coins has become the right of any service member and building a collection of these has proved popular. After all, such medallic memorials are permanent reminders of the people who served with you and shared your military activities. Their memory is enshrined forever in a challenge coin collection. Racks and display cases have been made just for housing such medals, particularly for growing collections.
An entire industry has been formed to produce challenge coins. Among a dozen companies creating these, the leading producer is Northwest Territorial Mint of Auburn, Washington. Affectionately called “NWT Mint,” this firm uses the most modern equipment with highly talented craftsmen to produce these cherished products.
Its staff designers transfer the ideas, images and inscriptions suggested by the client. After approval these are rendered into a steel die with the modulated relief to produce those images and inscriptions onto a metal blank. Unlike casting, employed by some of their competitors, NWT Mint’s die-struck medals bear sharp, detailed, bold relief.
Dies are cut, again on modern equipment. Two completed dies are mounted in hydraulic or coining presses. After striking the freshly minted medals are given a finish.
The greatest innovation in recent years is the application of color to the monochrome metal objects. Color is provided with enamels in a rainbow of hues. Colors are chosen for their obvious, or sometimes subtitle, symbolism. Blue is symbolic of Navy for example.
Each enamel color is applied with fine particles of colored glass beads to the medal surface with a hypodermic-like needle. It is then fired in an oven to melt and fuse in a hardened state, forever preserving the vibrant color. It they are to be gold or silver plated, this can be accomplished after enamelling, as the plating adheres to the metal but not the glass-like hard enamel.
Inspection follows to insure the client receives only as perfect specimens as modern minting technology provides. Thus challenge coins have ended their creation and only then are they proudly shipped to the client.
For ease of obtained a high-quality challenge coins, Northwest Territorial Mint has established a Military Coin Store in the Pentagon, located on the Concourse, next to Fort America. It is staffed with knowledgeable specialists who can assist with any aid necessary in designing a new challenge coin. Hundreds of examples are on view for idea inspiration.
Here you will view challenge coins in all colors, and significantly, in a variety of shapes. While circular is most popular – and most useful perhaps as a pocket piece – oval, flag-shape, shield-shape, dog-tag shape, triangular, diamond, and, not surprising, even in pentagon shape.
The variety is endless and a designer is limited only by his own inspiration and imagination. To their credit NWT Mint is capable of creating any challenge coin concept that can be suggested to them.
Some pin the origin of this custom to a 1969 event in which the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborn), under the leadership of Col. Vernon E. Greene, who was its Commander that year. They issued a coin bearing a Trojan Horse as a fundraiser to help purchase a glass home for a handicaped German member.
This unit had non-U.S. citizens join its group. With so many nationalities on board, and varying proficiencies in English, the coin was created as a document to “identify guys in the unit without a whole lot of wrangling.” Such a coin was bona fide proof of membership.
Some think the custom first occurred in World War I, when a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions made with his squadron symbol on it.
He was assigned to a combat aircraft that was shot down in German territory. He was caught and stripped of all his identification – except for that medallion in a leather pouch hung around his neck.