An article in today’s Washington Post calls attention to the collecting specialty of “challenge coins,” particularly CIA challenge coins. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, challenge coins are medallions that are imprinted with an organization’s insignia and distributed to its members. Katherine Jaeger (now Katherine de Silva), in A Guide Book of U.S. Tokens and Medals, explains:
“Anyone looking on the Internet for a definition of the challenge coin will encounter a widely duplicated posting entitled, ‘The History of the Challenge Coin.’ As the story goes, during World War I a wealthy Army Air Service lieutenant ordered bronze medals to be struck as membership pieces for his squadron’s pilots. One of them was shot down over Germany, lost his dog tags, and escaped to France, and was able to prove to suspicious French soldiers that he was an American by showing them the name and emblem of his unit on the medal. Afterward, the lieutenant insisted his pilots carry their medals at all times. Airmen were encouraged to ‘challenge’ their fellows at any time, to ensure they were carrying their medals. If a challenged man could not produce a medal, he had to buy his challenger a drink. If he could produce it, then the challenger would buy the drink. Since this lieutenant’s name and the name of his unit are missing from the story, it is unverifiable. There is no evidence for challenge-coin use in World War II or the Korean conflict, so it is safe to assume that this tale has little connection to today’s challenge coins.
“According to Roxanne Merritt, curator of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Museum at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the American practice of ‘coining’ was born when a member of the 11th Special Forces Group Airborne in Vietnam took old coins, counterstamped them with his unit’s emblem, and presented them to the other unit members as souvenirs of duty. In 1969, Colonel Vernon E. Greene, Commander of the 10th Special Forces Group, liked the idea and designed a coin for his unit, putting their symbol, a Trojan horse, on the obverse. Merritt said that the 10th was the only unit to ‘coin’ members until the mid-1980s, when ‘an explosion took place and everybody started minting coins.’ Today’s military provides a budget for the supply of unit coins for all five branches of service, and to other agencies such as the U.S. Marshals and the CIA, as well as American units of the United Nations peacekeeping forces. Most bear the unit name and crest on the obverse and the commander’s chosen design on the reverse.”
—(from chapter 23, “Fraternal and Membership-Themed Medals and Tokens”)
When contacted about this blog post, de Silva added, “Challenge coins are attractive for their stories. Ask any active member of the armed forces to tell you a challenge coin story—they all have them and it makes a wonderful conversation opener. Which reminds me—I’m still looking for the U.S. Marine who lent me one from his collection, then relocated. I have no forwarding address. Anyone know Gordon Laabs, last known address Philadelphia? If you find him, I’ll tell you his coin story!”
Challenge coins are fascinating and highly collectible. If your interest is piqued, consider looking into the Token and Medal Society or Medal Collectors of America. Their websites, events, and publications aim to educate collectors and to promote the hobby.