There are many kinds of custom coins, but the most well-known of these are those of military origin, otherwise known as Challenge Coins.
Such coins are a mystery for many people who have no experience, ties or affiliation with the military. However, challenge coins are an important tradition in the armed forces as they use them to help promote and build up camaraderie among those who belong to the same service branch. Owning one of these custom coins allows one to proudly claim that he is a legitimate member of a particular group.
To depict the significance of challenge coins in military history, there is one well-known story that has achieved legend status thanks to how widely the story has been retold. Story has it that during World War I, a US fighter pilot’s aircraft was shot down in Germany. He was caught and held in detention, but later escaped when the British came in to liberate the area. This afforded the prisoner a chance to escape.
Later on, the prisoner fell into the custody of French officers who believed him to be a spy. He had lost all his belongings, and his experience with the Germans much altered his looks and demeanor, thus causing the French to doubt his identity. As he was about to be executed, the American managed to save his life by presenting his challenge coin – one that was given to him by his lieutenant before deployment. It was this very coin – which was covered by special marks – that proved that he was a member of the unit he claimed affiliation to.
In popular culture, the significance of these military custom coins are well-depicted. One example is an episode in the 7th season of Criminal Minds, which was aired on March 21, 2012. In this episode, a boy is kidnapped, but becomes mute even after he has been rescued by his kidnapper. Special Agent Derek Morgan attempts to break through the wall of trauma by telling the boy his own version of the WWI story. To encourage the boy further, he gives him his challenge coin as a keepsake and reminder. Later the episode ends showing that Morgan has more than a dozen other challenge coins on display on his desk.
Stories of “challenge” are what gave these special custom coins the moniker that they have today.
The traditional way for a military man to handle his coin is to carry it around on him at all times and to wear it around his neck in a pouch. The rules that determine how a challenge is put forth are different for every organization and are not formally established.
This challenge can take place suddenly at any time and is initiated by a challenger who slaps the coin on a table in a bar. The person who is being challenged must produce the coin. Failure to do so means he has to buy drinks for the challenger and every person in the room has a coin with him. If all the people challenged show their coins, then the challenger must buy drinks for everyone.
Such traditions are meant to build the morale of unit members and to give them a sense of belonging and loyalty to their group. It is interesting to note how custom coins can be used in such ways that connect and strengthen ties between people of the same group.