A small token of appreciation

A challenge coin passes from one person to another near building 533 on Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, June 28, 2018. A challenge coin signifies inclusion to a group or can be given out as small tokens of appreciation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Edwards/Released)

A challenge coin passes from one person to another near building 533 on Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, June 28, 2018. A challenge coin signifies inclusion to a group or can be given out as small tokens of appreciation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Edwards/Released)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- If you have been in the military for a minute, then you have probably received a challenge coin at some point.

The origins of these coins can be traced back to when Roman soldiers received tokens to recognize their achievements, but tying down the exact link to the modern military is uncertain.

There are several stories, with one referring to a wealthy lieutenant in World War I who bought coins for the men in his unit.

Another tale is about an Army infantry-run bar where they tried to keep non-infantrymen away by making them buy drinks for the whole bar if they could not prove they had been in combat. Collecting enemy bullets became proof, but that escalated to grenades, rockets and unexploded ordnances. To deescalate things, the proof was changed to a coin with their unit’s insignia on it.

A third version tied to the 11th Special Forces Group, seems to have the most credibility though.

“A member of the 11th Special Forces Group took old coins, had them over stamped with a different emblem, then presented them to unit members,” according to the curator of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Museum at Fort Bragg, N.C., Roxanne Merritt. “A former commander of the 10th Special Forces Group picked up on the idea, becoming the first to mint a unit coin for the U.S. military. The 10th group remained the only Army unit with its own coin until the mid-1980s.”

Despite an unclear history, in the Air Force, these coins represent being part of a group, with most individuals receiving a coin after completing Officer Training School or Basic Military Training.

“The Airmen’s Coin was given to us on the day of our graduation … our [Military Training Instructors] went down the ranks of our flight and they shook our hands and gave us our coin,” said Airman 1st Class Isiah Jacobs, 315th Training Squadron student. “It was the moment we were considered Airmen and not trainees. Getting the coin after going through so many weeks of basic training … this is your official proof that you are now a part of the Air Force. That was the most rewarding part of the coin ceremony.”

The coins also represent a chance for someone to show a token of appreciation to an individual.

“I was on the honor guard and someone gave me a challenge coin,” said Lt. Col. Warren Conrow, 17th Medical Support Squadron commander, referring to the first time he received a coin. “To be on the honor guard, that was an honor, and then to have someone reward me for what I didn’t think was going above and beyond … it really struck home. It gave me a little boost and I thought if I ever get into that position, I want to do the same thing.”

Typically the coins are given out by commanders, and although Conrow, who is new to the commander’s position, has not been able to give one out yet, one of his peers has.

“I have been in command for a few days and gave out a coin,” said Maj. Michael Quinn, 17th Contracting Squadron commander. “If an individual rises to a significant challenge and performs exceptionally well compared to what is expected at their grade or rank then I will want to coin that person. If an individual contributes much to the mission over a significant duration and never falters in our core values, then I will want to coin that person.”

While commander’s coins are the most common, some chiefs, chaplains and first sergeants also have their own.

“We like to give our challenge coin out to the unsung heroes,” said Master Sgt. Aaron Myers, 17th Force Support Squadron first sergeant. “We just gave out one in conjunction with our Diamond Sharp Award. We gave this individual a certificate and a coin, and it was actually pretty moving. I don’t think they realized what was going on to begin with, and once they were able to sit back and reflect a little bit, they realized how much their hard work is appreciated. That was the first time I had a chance to coin an individual and I hold that close to the heart as well.”

With the emotions these small tokens can hold to an individual, service members hold value to each of the coins they earn.

“Save your coins and cherish them because they are something to be proud off,” said Jacobs. “It’s proof that you are part of the world’s great Air Force.”