The Military Challenge Coin: a Tradition of Honor

A friend was kind enough to recently give me a wonderful present. I've had a display case for many of the "challenge coins" I received during my time in the U.S. Navy as an MU (musician), though the old case didn't have enough room to include all my favorite coins. The new case, seen here, handsomely displays all my challenge coins, or "command coins" as they are also called. As I arranged them in an order that made sense to me, I realized it would be fun to share them with you all, and reflect on why they are special to me.

26 challenge coins, proudly displayed at my home in San Diego, CA.

26 challenge coins, proudly displayed at my home in San Diego, CA.

I won't spend too much time on a history of the challenge coin. A quick Internet search will yield interesting theories on its origin, some dating the phenemenon back to WWII, others to WWI, and still others to Ancient RomeI do find the name itself intriguing, and was interested to read different explanations for its meaning.

A Pirate motif, reminding us that at the end of the day, the U.S. Navy is just downright cool a lot of times.

A Pirate motif, reminding us that at the end of the day, the U.S. Navy is just downright cool a lot of times.

I was surprised to read during my Internet exploration that some consider the word "challenge" to mean that the awardee successfully met a challenge, and receives the coin to commemorate the achievement. I always associated it with the tradition of having a coin at the ready at a local watering hole, ready to accept the potential challenge from another service person (loser buying a round of drinks), but I like both meanings. 

Students who graduate the Navy School of Music with a score of 3.0 or higher get the honor of a name plaque on the walls of the school, as well as a command coin. 

Students who graduate the Navy School of Music with a score of 3.0 or higher get the honor of a name plaque on the walls of the school, as well as a command coin. 

One of the most appealing characteristics of the challenge coin, for me, is that it is completely void of tangible reward, career advancement, politics, or monetary value. The honor begins and ends with the coin, but it is indeed an honor. So much so, in fact, that Bill Clinton included his own collection of challenge coins in his official Presidential portrait

Former President Bill Clinton's official portrait includes his challenge coin collection in the background.

Former President Bill Clinton's official portrait includes his challenge coin collection in the background.

The act of giving and receiving the coin is a bit of a ritual unto itself, with no formal or written how-to, but simply taught and understood through experience. If a woman or man in military service thinks you've done a good job, that service person may approach you, extend a hand for a respectful handshake, and (without verbal recognition of doing so) also pass the concealed congratulatory memento during the handshake. It is considered bad form to look at the coin upon receipt, and etiquette dictates the recipient discretely put the coin away in a pocket as soon as possible, only taking it out  to admire at a later, more appropriate time. In fact, Navy Band lore includes the story of a musician sailor who was told by an admiral to give a coin back after blatantly examining it upon receipt!

HSC-85 "High Rollers" Navy command coin.

HSC-85 "High Rollers" Navy command coin.

My most prestigious challenge coin. I received this from the highest ranking individual in the Department of the Navy, the Secretary of the Navy (aka SECNAV). 

My most prestigious challenge coin. I received this from the highest ranking individual in the Department of the Navy, the Secretary of the Navy (aka SECNAV). 

In any case, I enjoy looking at these mementos, and am proud to have them in an accessible place at home. They've become a scrapbook of sorts for me, and immediately take me back to some of my proudest moments of service. I will never forget, for instance, performing for the Secretary of the Navy (one of two times). On the first occasion, I was undersatndably thrilled to receive a coin from Mr. Ray Mabus, only to learn after the fact that there had been a mixup, and I erroneously received a coin that had been intended for him! I respectfully returned the memento via mail (under the guidance of my command superiors) to the intended recipient, and was soon given the coin orginally meant for me (accompanied by the letter you see here). 

A letter I received from then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to accompany the appropriate coin after a mixup on the Midway.

A letter I received from then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to accompany the appropriate coin after a mixup on the Midway.

During my time in the Navy, I was privileged to perform for President Barack Obama, former President Jimmy Carter, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), the Vice CNO,  then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, of course, thousands of brave American women and men who served in uniform. Some of these occasions were commemorated through coins and/or Fleet Letters of Commendation, while others were not. All were special to me, however, and my challenge coins are a great reminder of a proud and rewarding time for me. 

I received this from an Air Force Command Chief Master Sergeant at the Vandenberg base in California. I remember the evening distinctly, since I also had the privilege of meeting two astronauts.

I received this from an Air Force Command Chief Master Sergeant at the Vandenberg base in California. I remember the evening distinctly, since I also had the privilege of meeting two astronauts.