Having a commander’s coin awarded to you is an honor most will never know. These medallions are given to military commanders for going above and beyond in the line of duty. Today, they’re also used to signify a person’s achievements in their field.
But where did this tradition come from? Read on to learn the history of the commander’s coin.
The commander’s coin is one of the many challenge coins given to officials.
These commemorative coins are more broadly known as challenge coins. They’re awarded to soldiers when they reach certain career goals. It can be a climb in rank or a moment that highlights their importance as a leader.
They’re about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter and made to last.
Only the finest materials and procedures are used when making a challenge coin. They’re typically made of iron, brass, zinc, or a combination of the three. They’re then finished in gold or pewter.
Challenge coins feature intricately designed images that represent the occupation of the awardee.
Challenge coins were once made as awards only, but are now also made for collection. The designs on collector challenge coins vary a lot more. Some make references to pop culture and historical events, and others just look cool.
The commander’s coin is one of the highest-ranking challenge coins. A commander’s coin is awarded for going above and beyond the call of duty. If you’ve got a commander’s coin, you should keep it on you always as a sign of pride.
The commander’s coin has a deep history, going back before WWI even. Whether you’re a collector or not, it’s a fascinating story.
Most people cite World War I as the beginning of commander’s coins. This, however, is only partially true.
Going back to the Roman Empire, soldiers got coins based on their achievements. This evolved into the Renaissance when royalty was awarded commander’s coins based on life events. These coins featured a portrait of the recipient on one side and a symbol on the other.
World War I and II are what solidified commander’s coins as an important staple of history, though.
There was once a rich lieutenant who gave commander’s coins to every member of his squadron. One member of the squad, a pilot, put his coin on a pouch around his neck. Soon after, his plane was shot down, resulting in his capture by the Germans.
The Germans took everything from this pilot but the pouch around his neck. He was kept prisoner in a small French town, but not for long. During a bombardment one night, he fled disguised as a German citizen.
The pilot made it all the way out of the village, across no-man’s land, and to a French outpost. But he wasn’t safe yet. The villagers thought he was a saboteur, and with no identification he couldn’t convince them otherwise.
The villagers set him for execution.
Then the pilot remembered his coin. He showed them the coin, and one man recognized its insignia. The captors gave him a bottle of wine and delayed the execution.
The pilot was given time to prove his identity and allowed to return to his squadron. From then on, everyone in the squad kept their coins on them at all times. They made a game of it, too.
At any time, one squadron member could challenge another by asking if they had their coin on them. If they did not, the one without a coin had to buy a drink for the challenger. If they did have it, the challenger bought the drink.
But not everyone is satisfied with this story. Some believe the origins of the commander’s coin come from WWII.
Some claim commander’s coins were first given to members of the OSS in Nazi France. They were used as identifiers, marked with specific identifiers and made with specific materials. This helped deter spies, as they would not carry matching coins when asked to show them.
No matter where challenge coins started, one thing is certain: they come from heroism. They’re responsible for saved lives and solidarity among squadrons. They remain a respected tradition in the US army and beyond to this day.
Beginning in the 90s, presidents started issuing and awarding challenge coins. Several presidents also have their own extensive collections. Bill Clinton, for example, owns a large collection of coins that were awarded to him during his time in the army.
Obama used to leave custom-made challenge coins on the graves of fallen soldiers as a sign of respect. Donald Trump was given one shortly after his inauguration. It features the slogan “Make America Great Again” on both sides of the coin!
The WHCA created a number of challenge coins featuring both Trump and Kim Jong Un on them in 2018. The coins show the two staring each other down, and feature both the men’s names and country’s flags. These were made available to collectors.
Challenge coins are now given to many people outside the armed service. From NASCAR racers to frat members, all these people earn coins. Even the crew of Breaking Bad got challenge coins after wrapping a season!
But this only adds to the importance and legacy of the coins. The commander’s coins solidified coins as a desirable award beyond the military. The fact that so many industries use commander’s coins just shows how special they really are.
A commander’s coin is more than just a handshake and a thank you. It’s a physical symbol that you’ve achieved what most never could. It signifies your rise in the ranks and your achievements as a leader and hero.
If you know someone with a commander’s coin, ask them the story behind it and show your respect. Chances are it’s going to be a good one.
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