By Larry Downing
To watch a “challenge coin” being passed from one person to another is to witness the equivalent of “the secret handshake.” Starting and ending as quickly as a bullet, the ritual is performed out in plain sight and almost always in the presence of others.
Most “civilians” remain clueless as to what they witnessed even though it happened right in front of them – seeing nothing more than a stone-faced soldier or Marine at attention quietly facing a commanding officer, politician, or at best a nation’s President, before reaching out firmly to shake hands.
And just like that the longstanding military tradition of giving away a “challenge coin” is over in the blink of an eye. A small, shiny medallion riding inside the palm of one hand and seamlessly ending up in the other; similar to the practice of slipping the folded $20 dollar bill to the maitre d’ on date night.
News photographers find it nearly impossible to catch a coin in mid-flight and not many can claim those bragging rights. However, Reuters senior photographer Jason Reed beat the long odds and froze two with his camera last June while on assignment in the dangerous dust of a hot patch of Afghanistan. Reed was accompanying then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates touring hostile combat zones around the country as the Secretary said his weary goodbyes to troops before returning home and retiring as the nation’s “SecDef.”
Soldiers were honored by Gates with “the secret handshake” – leaving each with one of the most coveted souvenirs in the U.S. military, the Secretary of Defense’s personal coin. A coin forever worthy on the mantle above the home fires alongside military medals, other unit coins and glowing citations reminding future generations of the personal victories of a distant relative during adventurous times. “Challenge coins” remain hard proof of membership into a unique club requiring nothing more than sole possession of one to remain a lifetime member. Military tradition suggests all those currently serving to carry one at all times, helping to build morale and promote camaraderie.
No one can accurately identify when or where the practice of carrying them was born but with certainty almost anyone wearing a military uniform today would be able to produce one immediately when challenged while drinking inside an NCO, or Officer’s club on any post, base, or camp around the world. Once a coin is loudly slapped down onto the bar, folklore demands everyone else must quickly answer that call by slapping down their own coin or pay the price and buy drinks – and lots of them.
Collecting is eagerly pursued by most anyone today, especially in official Washington DC, where coins seem to have replaced the business card. Anyone working in the nation’s capital “who is anybody” has designed their own to pass out. Each one is unique and representative of a specific group or enthusiastic ego. And like snowflakes, no two are alike.
All coins with White House ties are treated by collectors as top drawer. The U.S. Secret Service easily monopolizes the “cool” factor because of its many different job specialties with a separate coin for each special division protecting the president.
The two Secret Service coins toughest to score are the “CAT” coin (Counter Assault Team) with the menacing paw on the front side and the “Counter Sniper Team” coin featuring a rifle’s scope cross hairs built inside a clear plastic window – prized trophies for varsity collectors. But you can’t go wrong with any of their coins.
Also at the top of a serious wish list are coins from military units, supporting either of the aircraft the president flies aboard; Air Force One and Marine One.
But not all coins are created equal and only one wears the king’s crown and that’s the rarest coin to get – the Presidential coin! That keepsake originates from only one place on earth – the right palm of the man occupying the Oval Office at the White House.
Former President George W. Bush reserved his coin for wounded military servicemen. He always kept a small stack, much like poker chips, on top of his desk for a quick draw. The chances are excellent anyone carrying his coin is combat wounded and probably deserving of it.
The Barack Obama coin is also a tough catch. Watching him pass one off is a treat to see. He enjoys giving it more than the other does receiving it and he always ends the handshake with an electric smile. His private stash is carried inside the front, left pocket of his pants and he retrieves one quickly with his left hand before transferring it to his right hand in a slick motion before beginning the “the secret handshake.” His delivery is developed much more now, after a rough start when he dropped one while awkwardly trying to give it to a Marine at the bottom of Marine One’s steps, at Joint Base Andrews.
My personal collection briefly displayed one of the Obama coins. I realized owning that coin made me an imposter compared to those returning home from combat so I found a home more deserving. I sent it to the mother of a severely wounded U.S. soldier, Shane Parsons, for him to receive on Christmas morning. Shane not only lost both his legs while serving in Iraq but suffers from traumatic brain injury. I had met him at the 6th annual National Disabled Festival in Laurel, Maryland in 2010, before a sled hockey game between military wounded veterans and he told me then how important “challenge coins” were to him.
His mother wrote to me after the holiday: “He cried for 45 minutes after seeing the coin, thank you.”
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