Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Challenge Coin

Hello everyone, I wrote this for an article to be published here in country and thought you may find it interesting.

Throughout the military, one can find these medal artifacts displayed proudly by soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen at their desks and in their offices. Some are simple and colorless. Others are ornate, filled with intricate designs and etchings. All of them have a story behind them.

The following story, which dates the history of military coins back to the 1st World War, has been passed down from one soldier to another.

During World War I, American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. Some were wealthy young men who left colleges such as Yale and Harvard in order to enlist in the military. In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered solid bronze medallions embossed with the squadron emblem for every member of his squadron. He carried his medallion in a small leather sack about his neck.

Shortly after acquiring the medallions, the lieutenant’s aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire during a mission. He was forced to land behind enemy lines where he was captured by a German patrol. In order to discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. He was eventually taken to a small French town near the front lines where he managed to escape during a night bombardment. During the attack, he donned civilian clothes and fled without personal identification. After escaping, the brave pilot succeeded in avoiding German patrols until he reached the front lines. With great difficulty, he crossed no-man's land and stumbled into a French outpost.

Unfortunately, the French in this sector had been plagued by German saboteurs, who sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothes. Not recognizing the young pilot's American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. Just in time, the American remembered his leather pouch containing the bronze medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners. When the French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion, they gave the pilot enough time to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him, they gave him a bottle of wine.

Eventually the pilot made it back to his squadron, where it became a tradition to ensure all members carried their medallion or coin at all times. This was accomplished through a challenge. A service member would ask to see the coin. If the challenger could not produce his coin, he was required to purchase a drink of choice for the member who had challenged him. If the challenged member produced his coin, then the challenging member was required to pay for the drink. This tradition continued through the war and for many years after while surviving members of the squadron were still alive.

Today, military service members often trade these coins while deployed. In some cases a coin can be earned meritoriously for a job well done. Regardless of how they are required, the history of the challenge coin remains a part of military tradition, and all branches will continue to display them proudly for years to come.

So what exactly goes into a unit challenge coin and how is the process done? There are several routes from concept to completed samples in order to acquire a challenge coin. Traditionally, the initial idea and concept for the coin is originated by the commander and NCOIC of the unit. Whether it is at division level or company level, the tradition is still carried on just as strong as in the past. The most common denominator is the fact that, both the commander and NCOIC want their coin to stand out while not looking like an “off the shelf” product and make their soldiers proud to earn one and carry it with them as an example of esprit de corps.

Common traits that appear on coin designs include the unit crest, patch, motto, slogan, home location, current operation (if applicable), color, numbering and a whole host of other characteristics in order to positively represent the unit and its members as a whole.

Here is how the process works for about 90% of the time. Having the coin made today is relatively very easy. The catch is a lot of companies will rake you over the coals on additional or complete computer rendering and concept design artwork in order to “adapt” your idea to their machine. It’s usually the secondary (sometimes the primary) source of income for the company; manufacturing and shipping are usually tied for the number one source of revenue. Always write down your ideas for EACH side of the coin and then work with someone to develop an art rendering of your idea. Make sure that each side will mean something (emotionally, professionally, etc) to you and especially to those you will be presenting the coins to. Keep your ideas and thoughts to a group of no more than three. This group will consist of the commander, senior NCO and the artist they will be working with. Always chose the artist from within the unit itself in order for him/her to apply additional effort into the coin design so that it turns out more “meaningful. This will also save you the headache of having people associated but not in the unit that have no clue, trying to provide “good ideas”.

Keep refining your ideas for a total of three renderings of coin designs so you can chose the best qualities from all three and adapt them into your final design. Power Point is a very user friendly program for starting out your design for its ability and flexibility to cut and paste different components digitally. Once you have your final design, save it in a JPEG format because it is the most adaptable and flexible format for computer machining. Finalize the design with your three person team and ALWAYS make a back up copy. Remember, no coin company will mint a coin with copy written artwork or trademarked slogans. Your unit’s history is always a great place to begin for components for you coin design. Military related artwork, such as branch insignia, rank, or patches can be fount at the Institute of Heraldry’s web site.

Once the design is finalized, it is sent (usually digitally) to the company for manufacturing. Price is set on the amount of coins ordered (300-400 initially) plus the set up fee for the die (mold of the coin). Prices will vary, depending on what you want, so research thoroughly and carefully. The company will send a final digital adaptation of your artwork and a photograph or the coin prototype for final approval. Once the “GO” is given, manufacturing will begin followed by shipping. The amount of time for delivery of the order will vary by company, size of the order, and time of year. Some companies are busier than others depending on the time of the year and how popular they are.

If any lingering questions still reside, research for at least one month prior to your final rendering. This will insure a great product for your unit to provide its soldiers. In the last 10-15 years, coin design and manufacturing has advanced with the aid of computer and machining technology to a level unpredicted by our military forefathers. One of the new trends as well is that we see civilian organizations such as fire, police, and EMS departments have joined the ranks of "coining" for their members. This is the final digital rendition of the coin for our cell (no pun intended) and the photograph of the prototype for final approval. I think we achieved our goal of it meaning somethin to us and the soldiers that earn them.


Blogger Tracy said...

Thanks so much for explaining that. I knew that y'all had coins made but didn't know why. And I had wondered.

Thanks for all you do.

1:54 AM  

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