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NEWS | Jan. 18, 2017

Proud Heritage of Commander’s Coin

By Col. Rob Lyman, commander Joint Base Charleston

Our profession of arms has a rich history of symbolism, from our rank insignia, to our badges, to individual medals and decorations. That symbolism is sometimes at its most creative in unit and commander coins.  What many may not realize, however, is just how integrated with our military history military coins are.

In recent decades, coins have become an emblem of esprit-de-corps for military units.  They are used to commemorate meaningful achievements and, of course, to challenge comrades-at-arms in clubs the world over.  During the Vietnam era, the modern military unit coin tradition began. Units began minting coins with their unit emblems and each member was required to carry the coin anywhere they went. Those challenged and without their coin paid their penance in a round of drinks. 

During the Cold War years, military members collected coins and paper currency from their many travels. Rare and meaningful ones were sometimes presented to troops as mementos of a particular trip or mission. Aircrews kept paper currency from their travels taped together and compared who had the longest link of bills.  The one with the “short snorter” had to buy a round at the bar.  Some units began to stamp their unit emblems or other meaningful symbols onto currency coins for use as keepsakes. 

After World War II, U.S. troops in Germany introduced the “pfennig check”.  The pfennig was the smallest of German coins and troops saved the oldest pfennig they could find.  During World War I, it is rumored that an Army Air Forces squadron had medallions made for each unit member. The tale goes that one pilot even used the medallion for confirmation of his identity with the French Resistance after being shot down. 

During the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century, most British Army troops were conscripts. The practice at the time was to decorate the officer leading a unit, rather than the individual soldier, for accomplishments. Good officers would work with their Regimental Sergeant Major, the senior enlisted member of the unit, to give a new sixpence to the deserving serviceman, delivered with a strong handshake, much like we pass coins today. 

Many of our professional martial traditions evolved from the Roman legions and have been passed through military services ever since.  These include military flags and change of command ceremonies. Many of our martial terms originated from Latin words of that time. Sergeant evolved from the Latin serviens, “one who serves”.  Integrity evolved from the Latin integris and intregitas, meaning “whole” or “complete”.  The word soldier evolved from the Latin solidus, referring to the solidi, a small gold Roman coin used to pay the legions. 

The root of our great democracy can be traced back to the ancient Greek city of Athens, and our military tradition can be traced back to ancient Sparta.  The Spartans are famous for their use of the phalanx formation, ranks of overlapping shields, in battle.  Spartans placed great importance on their shields as their primary purpose was not personal protection but to maintain the integrity of the unit.  Myths say when Spartan warriors went into battle; they did not take along any personal possessions, except for a single small coin.  The ancient Greeks believed that after death their soul had to cross the river Styx to enter the afterlife.  The immortal Charon piloted the ferry across the river and demanded a single coin to make the journey.  Ancient Greeks buried their dead with a coin to pay the ferryman, thus each Spartan carried a single coin into battle.  If a fallen comrade’s coin was somehow lost, the highest honor a living warrior could give was to substitute his own coin at the burial.  In effect, the living warrior risked his chance of reaching the afterlife to ensure his fallen comrade rested in peace. 

Today, a military coin is more than a round metal object to be stored away in a desk drawer or shoebox in a closet.  There is a reason so many current and former national-security professionals proudly display military coins on their desks, on their walls, and in their retirement shadow boxes. Giving one is no small gesture; receiving one no small honor. 

Every time I give one it has special meaning. It symbolizes my recognition of excellence and service, but it also bonds us to a meaningful legacy.  Whether you are a military member, a national security professional, a contract teammate, a family member or a supporter of service personnel, when you receive a coin you share in this rich history.  A military coin symbolizes much that is good about our profession of arms. Cherish it.