Air Force

March 22, 2012

Challenge coins — history in the palm of your hand


Credit: (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss/Released)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — An Airman walks into the bar of the Enlisted Club and slams his hand against the table. Everything stops, and everybody at the bar looks at him as he lifts his hand to reveal the surprise — he just issued a challenge, a military coin challenge.

That slamming of the coin is a tradition that has been a part of the military dating back to the Army Air Corps, the precursor of the U.S. Air Force.

“Challenge coins are Air Force history, as the first challenge coins are from the pilots of World War I,” said Ralph Jackson, 49th Wing historian. “Per legend, the first coin was with a U.S. pilot who made it back through the lines after being shot down.”

As the years have gone by since World War II and the change of the Army Corps to the U.S. Air Force, the use of challenge coins has become more popular and customary. With base commanders, chiefs, and first sergeants having coins that they give out for outstanding service and exceptional behavior, the challenge coin has become a part of Air Force heritage. As of 2001, that heritage which began more than 70 years ago has a significant meaning to those Airmen who complete Basic Military Training. The Airman’s coin is awarded to Air Force BMT graduates during a special coining ceremony, introducing an entire training class to the tradition of challenge coins.

“When receiving the Airman’s coin, I was honored to have joined and be part of the U.S. Air Force,” said Senior Airman Jovany Cerezo, 49th Communications Squadron, Wing Client Support Administrator. “I was proud to say that I am an active-duty military personnel serving my country and honoring those who served before me.”

Challenge coins have various purposes throughout the Air Force and various meanings to its Airmen. Some view it as a memento of significant value and others see it as just a collectible and everything in between.

“I think the challenge coin is a good thing in the Air Force, it kind of brings a family vibe to each individual,” said Senior Airman Zachery Shook, 49th Wing Staff Agencies unit deployment manager. “They are also helpful for keeping you alert when you’re out with your buddies, that way you’re not constantly buying a round of drinks!”

Though Airmen everywhere debate their origin, or whether we need them to function, one thing that is undeniable is they are an Air Force tradition that has both historic background and a high level of importance to those who earn them. The 49th Wing at Holloman AFB held a coin design contest, open to anyone who wished to submit a design, to celebrate another historical landmark in Air Force history: the 70th anniversary of the base, which opened in 1942 as Alamogordo Army Airfield. The purpose of this challenge coin is to embody the vast history and important contributions Holloman AFB has made to the Air Force.

“I recognize the coin as a symbolic gesture for commanders and other military leaders to give recognition to service members for a particular accomplishment,” said Chief Master Sgt. James Patrie, 49th Wing command chief. “The coin serves as a potent symbol of pride for organization and military appreciation.”

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