For a job well done: the story behind commander’s coins

By Airman 1st Class Helena Owens | Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs | Sept. 28, 2018

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —

Many military members can remember a time when they got coined, whether it was the first coin they ever received or a coin they were awarded from a special moment. Yet, few know how commander’s coins – once known as challenge coins – came from. However, there are many theories regarding the origin and purpose of this long-held military tradition.

“I only became aware of them in the late 1980s and I had been in the Air Force since 1974,” said Barry Spink, Air Force Historical Research Agency archivist. “Only the commander of a unit had them to dispense. However, I do believe it was a U.S. Army tradition dating back to the Vietnam War. The first time I ever saw one was when a general gave one to the colonel who commanded my unit in the mid-1980s.”

One theory, according to an August 1994 issue of Soldiers Magazine, is that a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions with his squadron emblem on it for every member of his squadron during World War I. The lieutenant carried his medallion in a small leather pouch around his neck. Shortly after he was captured by a German patrol, he managed to escape captivity to a French outpost. The French didn’t recognize his American accent, thought he was a saboteur and were ready to execute him. Just in time, he remembered his leather pouch containing the medallion around his neck and showed it to his French captors. They recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion and confirmed his identity. It then became mandatory for all members of that unit to keep their medallions or coins on them at all times.

Today, the tradition carries on as a way for commanders to recognize service members, boost unit morale and give a sense of belonging.

“I received my first coin back in 1995,” said Senior Master Sgt. Adam Carr, 628th Comptroller Squadron wing staff agencies superintendent. “I was working as a C-130 crew chief and we had just got done prepping the aircraft for a mission. Our flight chief came out and said that the commander wanted me to have this coin. I think it was way better than a pat on the back. It was a great recognition tool.”

Carr has a collection of coins ranging in all different sizes, shapes and colors. Every coin has a special meaning to him, whether it is to remember a specific mission or to honor a personal milestone.

“One coin in my collection is my absolute favorite,” said Carr. “We were doing a mission from Lakenheath, England, down to Burmese, Italy, and they had gunships there; to see the capabilities of this machine was amazing. Therefore, my gunship coin is easily my favorite.”

Honoring someone with a commander’s coin is a way for senior leadership to show their appreciation for a phenomenal job on the spot. It is more than just a thank you or a pat on the back – it is something tangible to remember the moment by.

“When I think about coining someone, I look for those who go above and beyond normal expectations,” said Lt. Col. William Parker, 628th Force Support Squadron commander. “Did they demonstrate any of our core values in an exceptional way? Did they serve in a selfless way? Was it something above the norm?”

Some commanders are able to recognize a moment of excellence right as it happens by carrying a coin with them during special events while others are able to hear of that moment later and can go recognize that person after the fact.

“I try to carry a coin on me at all times,” said Parker. “I want to be prepared in case there is a moment that I can’t let pass. I think that immediate recognition is important and encourages others to shine in front of their peers.”

Whether you become a collector or not, any commander’s coin you receive will have an important moment attached to it. It is a sign of gratitude for a job well done and part of a long and thoughtful military tradition.