If you spend any time at all with fighter pilots in the club or base or the squadron bar, there will be moments when your ears will be both assaulted and delighted by something reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 poem, The Raven:
“While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping on my chamber door.”
Looking around the room, you would quickly notice that any chamber door is either propped open by a person standing against it, or has been flung wide open–negating the need for knocking.
Upon closer inspection, you notice the rapping is coming from the sturdy surface of the bar, where hands protruding from appropriately rolled-up flightsuit sleeves are knocking the edges of large coins against the bar in rapid succession.
The fighter community has a long-standing tradition of carrying a special coin, symbolizing the bond between warfighters–the individual unit, the larger mission, the esprit de corps they share. With such strong bonds formed by firing shots in anger on the other side of the world, supporting and covering each other on their missions, these coins capture the heart of their brotherhood and pride. Known to generations of military personnel as challenge coins, they are a vital part of fighter pilot culture.
In the present day, challenge coins are carried by soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, as well as law enforcement officers and firefighters. These coins identify the bearer as a member of a specific command with a storied history, a participant in a particular mission, or the recipient of a senior leader’s token of gratitude or award. Wherever these warriors gather, they challenge each other–usually to drinks– by issuing the challenge, in the manner described above. One coin comes out to issue the challenge, tapping the edge on the bar or nearest sturdy surface, an audible call demanding everyone in the room produce their coin. Whomever is last, or–gasp–is without their coin, buys the round.
The tradition of challenge coins can be traced to World War II when American forces deployed to the far reaches of the globe securing freedom for other nations. Soldiers all the way back to World War I and even the Civil War left for battle with a coin from home in their pocket–keeping it long after the conflict as a lasting remembrance of their service.
American soldiers stationed overseas in Germany adopted that country’s popular “pfennig check.” The pfennig was the smallest unit of German currency and when someone announced a pfennig check, a soldier who could not produce one had to buy a round of drinks for his buddies. It was the original coin challenge.
What’s important to remember is a challenge coin is not just a round metal object (RMO). They are a tangible source of esteem and belonging on every level in the chain of command. As previously mentioned, the coin can be used as an award of sorts. Senior leadership sometimes presents them as gifts to dignitaries.
Most importantly of all, a challenge coin is to be carried at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a jet taxiing by another unit’s flight crew or maintainers, or if you’re forming up on your flight lead during a sortie, or if you happen to be in the shower. You must have your coin on you. Period.
The challenge coins are exchanged from one person to another with a traditional handshake. The coin-giver places the coin in his palm and reaches out to shake the hand of the coin-recipient. Then, hands grasped appropriately, they turn their handshake over so that the coin falls from one palm to the other.
When you consider the importance of the RMO in a warrior’s life, it’s not about the challenge itself, or how awesome the coin is, or how many stars it displays. The challenge coin is a physical, tangible reminder–proof of hard-fought relationships that have often have a bond closer than blood.