For all those of you getting tired of the USO tour posts, this is the last one. On to regular life…
People in the military all know what a challenge coin is, but few civilians do. A challenge, or unit, coin is a medallion that represents affiliation, support or patronage to the organization minted on the coin. Almost all military units have their own coins, carried by the members of the units, and commanders often have special coins to give out when someone does something special for the unit.
According to legend, the challenge coin originated during World War I, when American volunteers from all walks of life filled newly formed flying squadrons. Some of these volunteers were wealthy students from such schools as Yale or Harvard, who quit college mid-term to join the war effort. One of these wealthy volunteers, a squadron lieutenant, ordered and paid for bronze medallions with his squadron insignia on it and gave one to each of the unit members. Shortly thereafter, one of the squadron’s aircraft was shot down behind enemy lines and a young pilot was captured by a German patrol. He was searched and all his ID and possesions confiscated, except the medallion which he wore in a leather pouch around his neck. While being held in a small French town near the front, the pilot escaped one night and, by donning civilian attire, got through into the French countryside.
Eventually he came upon a French outpost. Suspected of being a sabatuer, something that had plagued the area recently, havng no ID and with his accent being unrecognized by the French, he was set to be executed. He produced his medallion, the insigina of which was recognized by one of his captors and his execution was delayed until he was able to confirm his identity. Back at the squadron, it became tradition to ensure all members had their medallions, or “coins” on them at all times. That’s where the “challenge” part comes in. A challenger would ask to see someone’s coin. If they could not produce it, the challenged individual had to buy the challenger a drink. If they did produce it, the challenger had to buy the drink.
When we started doing these USO trips, we quickly learned about challenge coins. We were often given coins, usually by the commanders of bases or FOBs we visited but sometimes just by soldiers whom we would draw. I have a case full of coins I’ve gotten in on my five USO trips.
My friend Jeff Keane was president of the NCS when we started working with the USO. Jeff had his own coin made, bearing the NCS logo and some Family Circus art on the back. he would give these to unit commanders and anyone who worked with us on the trips. Garry Trudeau had a Doonesbury coin made, which he gave to anyone he drew when he was on these trips. When I became president, I had my own coin made. I give one to each soldier I draw, and you should see their faces light up when you present them. The way you do it is you palm the coin and then shake the hand of the recipient, transferring the coin to their hand. Coins are a big deal in the armed forces.
The pics above are of my new coin, one I had done after being
railroaded elected to a second term as NCS president. My original coin had the years of my initial term on it, and a different front… this time around I had a sculpted, 3-D NCS logo as opposed to a flat one. My coins are based largely on Jeff’s original design with the die-cut areas. I gave a lot of the old ones out when on the USS Enterprise last year, and a lot of these new ones out in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan last week.
Incidentally, I never carry the coin on me… so if you are a military person and see he in a bar please feel free to challenge me with a coin. You’ll NEVER end up having to buy me a drink!