Coin Check

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
I once went to a small business and tech conference in San Francisco. And among all the people hobnobbing in hoodies or khakis, a man emerged in full military attire. Dark green uniform with ribbons on his chest and tiny pins all perfectly affixed, crew cut, whole nine yards. He was a Marine lieutenant colonel, and he was by far the most interesting person in the room. I was just glued to him.

Roman Mars:
Anyways, we parted ways. He handed me this coin-like thing. I mean, it was bigger than a coin. It was about an inch and a half in diameter, ornately decorated with the icon of the lieutenant colonel’s unit and heavier than anything I’d care to keep in my wallet. I felt incredibly honored. But I didn’t know what it was or what the hell I was supposed to do with it.

Avery Trufelman:
I also got a coin-like thing. It was from a tour guide at the Pentagon. I asked him what it was. And he was like, “Eh, it’s just something we do.”

Roman Mars:
Producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
I told my housemate, Ben, about my coin. And he was like, “Oh yeah, I have one of those. It was my grandfather’s.”

Ben:
“Here it is.”

Avery Trufelman:
I woke Ben up before I came to work, so he sounds really sleepy.

Ben:
So his coin is from the 101st Airborne. It’s got the 101st Airborne insignia and shows a couple of the places that they fought: Vietnam, World War II. On the back, it says, “Rendezvous With Destiny,” which is their motto, their creed, I don’t know.

Avery Trufelman:
“Did he ever tell you about this?”

Ben:
“I actually never met him. This is the only thing that I have of his.”

Roman Mars:
Avery and I figured out that these coins are called ‘challenge coins’.

Avery Trufelman:
And they are coins. But they’re not currency. And they’re not quite medals. Challenge coins are something different.

Kerry Fosher:
Everything that I say here today is my own personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Marine Corps.

Roman Mars:
Roger that. Kerry Fosher is not in the Marines.

Avery Trufelman:
She is a cultural anthropologist at Marine Corps University. She’s encountered challenge coins many times throughout her career.

Kerry Fosher:
I would imagine that except for the brand new people coming in, everybody will know that they exist. The degree to which they are used varies a great deal.

Roman Mars:
This can depend on which military branch you serve in and your rank, but it goes further than that.

Kerry Fosher:
There are so many different uses, so many different kinds of things that the coins can symbolize, depending on the context in which you’re looking at them or somebody is giving them.

Avery Trufelman:
Kerry says that one of the meanings of the coins is made apparent in the act of giving or exchanging them. The coins are literal tokens of gratitude, of appreciation or love or sympathy. They are a powerful and tangible form of connection within an institution that is not known for being very touchy-feely.

Kerry Fosher:
It can be difficult in certain contexts to express emotion, especially if it’s across the ranks. And I do think that the coins are used in that way, as a physical symbol of affection or gratitude.

Avery Trufelman:
So across ranks, people might be given a coin for a job well done because there are only so many ways to show appreciation within the military.

Kerry Fosher:
You can’t give a person a raise. You can’t give them a promotion. At least you can give them that symbolic indicator of our feelings about the work that you’re doing.

Roman Mars:
But of course, as Avery and I learned, these coins are occasionally given out to civilians.

Chris McGrath:
Most of the time I would give a coin just to say, “Thank you for helping me out.”

Avery Trufelman:
That’s Chris McGrath. He’s a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy.

Chris McGrath:
And I collect and trade challenge coins.

Avery Trufelman:
Chris says he gives coins out to coworkers, old friends, anyone who does him a solid.

Roman Mars:
And for that reason, you end up finding these coins in places where you would not expect to find any connection to the military. You know, like in the hands of wimpy podcasters like us.

Avery Trufelman:
And the coins are a way to establish relationships outside of the institution.

Jordan Haines:
When these coins get sent out, they’re a physical reminder of both the fact that the military is there, but perhaps more importantly, that it’s not some faceless monolithic structure sitting in the Pentagon. There are human beings involved. And they are human beings who can develop a professional or a personal relationship with somebody outside the military.

Avery Trufelman:
When I received my coin from the Pentagon tour guide, he just kind of unceremoniously handed it to me. But within the military, when a sailor or a soldier or a pilot or a Marine gives a coin, they don’t just hand it over. There’s a traditional handshake.

Roman Mars:
Of course, there is.

Chris McGrath:
You know, a handshake is used whenever someone is transferring one of the coins over and essentially you have the coin sitting in in the palm of your hand-

Avery Trufelman:
And then with the coin in your palm, you firmly grasp the hand of the person you want to give the coin to.

Chris McGrath:
And then you both flip your hands over so it ends up in their hand.

Roman Mars:
Chris has an amazing collection of challenge coins. Some don’t look like regular coins at all.

Chris McGrath:
I’ve got one here shaped like a ninja star. I’ve got another one shaped kind of like a crown. You know, this one is shaped like a cougar, profile view, but the teeth are open, and you can actually use it as a bottle opener.

Avery Trufelman:
The bottle opener could actually be quite practical. Because in addition to being gifts and heirlooms and tokens of appreciation, challenge coins are used to play a drinking game. And if you’re in possession of a coin, you can be in on the game.

Roman Mars:
Jordan Haines, a veteran of the Air Force plays like this.

Jordan Haines:
If I was at a bar, I would have the coin in my pocket. And if I felt, you know, emboldened, I would pull the coin out of my pocket, and I would (sound of a coin being dropped)… I would throw it down on the bar. Or I might tap it (sound of a coin tapping).

Avery Trufelman:
And maybe holler out, “Coin check.”

Roman Mars:
And all his buddies and crew members would take out their coins.

Jordan Haines:
We expect them to reply with their coin, doing the same thing. So now you’ve got all this craziness going on because people are slamming the coins down and yelling out, “coin check.”

Avery Trufelman:
And they go down the line, and each person pulls out their coin.

Jordan Haines:
Hopefully, what happens is somebody doesn’t have their coin. And if they don’t have their coin, then boom.

Roman Mars:
The person without their coin buys everyone a drink.

Jordan Haines:
But, the person who does the coin check is liable for a round of drinks if everybody does have their coin.

Avery Trufelman:
So starting the coin check is also a gamble. And not all of the branches of the military are into the drinking game.

Kerry Fosher:
I will say that I have not seen Marines initiate that kind of game. They would certainly participate if somebody from another service did that.

Roman Mars:
But those who play the game are in it to win it. Some have their coins on them, always.

Chris McGrath:
That little useless coin pocket you have in your jeans, I’ve actually found a use for it, and it’s for my challenge coin.

Jordan Haines:
You got to be on your toes, you know. I mean, if you’re in a shower, you know, take your coin with you. If you’re out running, whatever you’re doing, you carry a coin with you. It could be coin right here in the studio.

Avery Trufelman:
As far as the history of challenge coins, there’s sort of an apocryphal story that traces them back to World War I, when an American army officer supposedly had some special coins minted for his men. And then one of those men was captured by French soldiers who mistook him for a German. And then he used his coin to prove that he was an American.

Roman Mars:
So the coins have also always been about identity.

Kerry Fosher:
They do tell a story about how the unit or the organization wants to be perceived. You know, what do they think are the most important things that they can communicate about themselves to an outside audience in a graphic form?

Roman Mars:
And since identity in the military has a lot to do with hierarchy, there is also a hierarchy with challenge coins.

Chris McGrath:
As you move up through the ranks, the challenge coins become more essentially valuable because they’re harder to get. It’s harder to get a Chief of Naval Operations coin. It’s even harder to get a Secretary of the Navy coin. It’s incredibly hard to get a Presidential coin.

Roman Mars:
Yes, the president has a coin. There’s a really lovely video of Obama giving his coin to a woman who lost her brother in Afghanistan.

Avery Trufelman:
And the military isn’t the only institution to use challenge coins, although they were the first. Now some police departments make coins and some fire departments. NASA gets coins minted. Sports teams have coins. Jimmy Buffett has a coin.

Jordan Haines:
Jimmy Buffett the singer, yeah.

Avery Trufelman:
That’s Jordan Haines again. He’s the one who told us about the drinking game.

Jordan Haines:
A lot of these performers, you know, if they’re doing a USO tour, they’ll have their coin with them in return to whoever presents them a coin.

Avery Trufelman:
In addition to being a collector of coins, Jordan is actually in the business of making coins. He’s made over three million of them, including Jimmy Buffett’s.

Jordan Haines:
I am the founder and CEO of Coinforce.com.

Roman Mars:
Coinforce is one of the private mints that designs and manufactures challenge coins.

Jordan Haines:
I’m holding a coin that I brought with me to the studio, a diamond-shaped coin that we made for Astronaut Lindgren. It’s got his name on it. Translucent, it’s like this super awesome coin. My God, we do awesome work.

Roman Mars:
You don’t have to be a president or an astronaut or Jimmy Buffett. You too can have a coin. You can design your own and then just go online and order it. That’s basically what the military does.

Avery Trufelman:
Most of the time a unit gets together and talks about what they want in their coin and then gathers the money for it themselves.

Chris McGrath:
So we’re not using taxpayer dollars. It’s all “by our own, for our own.” So we are fundraising internally or we’re doing car washes.

Avery Trufelman:
Because coins are not in the budget, there’s no set procedure for making them. And no rules, which means the design process is very informal.

Chris McGrath:
Nine times out of 10 in the Navy, someone takes that sketch and they use clip art and put it into PowerPoint and then send it off to the manufacturer.

Roman Mars:
PowerPoint. Microsoft PowerPoint.

Chris McGrath:
PowerPoint is installed on every government computer. And for us, it’s free.

Avery Trufelman:
And then Jordan at Coinforce, or whoever the manufacturer is, will take that mockup and finish a final design on real professional-grade software.

Jordan Haines:
A design studio does not use PowerPoint to design a challenge coin.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s a relief.

Avery Trufelman:
The individual coins take on a whole new meaning when a bunch are displayed together. And a lot of military folks make elaborate displays or even custom furniture to show off their collection.

Roman Mars:
Of course, some displays are much simpler. In Clinton’s presidential portrait, he’s posing in front of his collection of challenge coins, and they’re in a simple wooden display.

Avery Trufelman:
But these coin displays are not like a flashy show of achievement at all.

Kerry Fosher:
It becomes less a display of “look at me” and more a display of a lot of long, quiet, hard work over the course of decades.

Roman Mars:
The coins show all the professional and personal relationships established over the course of a career. So if you’re in the Army and have coins from the Air Force in your collection, it shows that you’ve collaborated across military branches, which can be really hard to do. The coins are physical proof of hard-fought relationships.

Avery Trufelman:
To me, the coins are full of interesting contradiction. They’re a combination of gravitas and tradition with levity and joy. Like my friend, Ben, if he wanted, he could go take that heirloom of his grandfather’s time in World War II and Vietnam and go win a beer with it.

Kerry Fosher:
You might not do those two things with the same coin. Some people might, but that’s just one of the lovely contradictions that you find all over military life.

Avery Trufelman:
In a world as regulated and rigorous as that of the United States military, the coins have this fluid quality about them. There are different coin check rules for different branches. The coin’s use and popularity varies. The history doesn’t have a set telling. The design doesn’t have set rules.

Kerry Fosher:
There is obviously a very regimented, very structured, very rule-bound aspect to the military. But challenge coins and a lot of other things that are routine parts of daily military life mitigate that structure.

Roman Mars:
Challenge coins are a reminder of the human elements of the massive US military, a reminder that some servicemen constantly carry.

Jordan Haines:
I’ve been coin-checked at airports. I’ve been coin-checked at trade shows. I’ve been coin-checked everywhere. Now, my home’s off-limits. Don’t be crawling up my balcony at 3:00 am to do a coin check on me on my property. But you catch me outside of my property, then, you know, game on.

Roman Mars:
There is no way I’m climbing up on that dude’s balcony at 3:00 am.

Comments (31)

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    1. tinter

      My apologies- found- but fyi not presently available on default mobile site.

  1. Johnathan

    Challenge coins have also been adopted by foreign militaries as well. My most cherished coin was given to me by the Japanese Self Defense Force (Army) Sergeant Major who gave it to me as a sign of appreciation for professionalism.

  2. Linda Kuzma

    I came across a tradition that may be the basis of the exchange of coins… “Tokens of Hospitium” were used in ancient Rome as a promise of reciprocal hospitality.
    I encountered this in the novel “SPQR: The King’s Gambit” by John Maddox Roberts (the end of chapter 5, if you want to see more details about the tradition).

  3. I admit I had no idea this was a thing. But it did remind me of a similar tradition with the Catholic culture. I’ve been given big hefty coins like these with images of saints or other catholic iconography. I really have no idea what to do with these other than store them away. One coin is a beautiful heavy coin with a bust of St Dominic Savio.

  4. I have four of them. What I find interesting is that every commanding officer has their own rules for handing them out. One of my coins was for helping out with the office picnic at my old agency, and while I appreciated it I find that to be a rather low bar. Other commanding officers, you pretty much have to save somebody’s life before you’ll get a coin.

  5. barrettc70

    One minor correction to this story. Before the recent budget tightening, Battalion level and above commanders were afforded a budget to purchase coins.

    I’ve designed 4 different coins over my career. As a tank company commander I paid out of pocket to construct a coin for my unit. As a cavalry squadron commander I had a unit coin and a deployment coin both paid for out of appropriate budget. And finally (and currently) I got my coin designed and paid for prior to the Secretary of the Army’s prohibition of using budget for the coins.

    I’ve found soldiers value a unit coin more so than a standard Army award. Another ribbon is just that, another ribbon. But a coin is a meaningful representation of the unit and their relationship to it. As such I usually have a slightly higher bar for giving them out. It doesn’t mean much if you give them out to anyone for any small thing.

    That said, as a captain I once received a coin for ‘getting out of bed.’ While deployed at the National Training Center (Fort Irwin CA) a concerned major wanted to make sure his materials (in the form of several 40 foot MILVANs tractor trailer loads) were scheduled for return back to Fort Hood TX. He came in about 2 am and my soldiers awoke me and the lieutenant who worked for me. We resolved his worries in a matter of minutes standing barefoot and bare chested in a cold, dark warehouse. As he left he gave us both coins. I protested that “we were just doing our job.” His reply was “well some people wouldn’t have gotten up to help me.”

    Every coin I have (somewhere around 90+ over a 25+ year career) has a story like that. That’s why they are valuable.

  6. gov

    I got a coin from the director of DFAS. I knew they were tokens of appreciation but had no idea there was such a rich tradition surrounding them.

  7. Thank you so much for talking about this! I have about 30 challenge coins, some from other branches and even a few from other country’s Air Forces. As the podcast said, they are an amazing mixture of thanks, brotherhood, and pride. Few people outside of that lifestyle know about them, and I’m glad you exposed this unique tradition.

    My daughters do not know it yet, but there are two Air Force Brat coins waiting for them when they get old enough to understand what they are :-)

  8. Eric

    Neat story. I heard from a friend about it as used by bartenders. I suspect it’s spilled out to other professions as well.

  9. Louise Henderson

    I have had the privilege to meet dignitaries as a driver in the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade. Three times that dignitary has been a member of the military. Having never heard of these coins, I was stunned the first time one was handed to me. It’s nice to think of the people behind them when I look at them now. The enthusiasm and kindness of Gen. Pete Chiarelli, then Vice Chief of Staff, US Army, the formal bearing of the Adjutant General of the Indiana National Guard and a plastic-encased coin from a high-ranking officer in the Slovenian Army! Great memories.

  10. Squirrel

    Huh. These remind me a lot of sobriety coins in AA, which are given to people at the anniversary of their sobriety by other group members, especially during the early 30, 60 and 90 day mark.

  11. I’ve attended men’s retreats at a prior church where a challenge coin was given to the person who most contributed to the success of the retreat. The tradition was started by a church member from the air force.

  12. embleholicsdesign

    Lots of military men and woman make their own custom challenge coins. They are unique in that they represent the units and organizations that they make them for. You can check out some coins that we have made on our site http://www.embleholics.com and see what others have created for their own military organization. Great article!

  13. Data point, or maybe ‘anecdote’. I served in the Marines from 1985 to 1993, as an 0311 and then 4063.

    I never, ever, heard of anything like a challenge coin.

    So it’s either a new thing since then, or a thing that wasn’t done for a while during the Cold War.

    1. Martin Zachry

      It started in the Air Force and over my 23 years I watched it spread. I’m sure it has to do with the fact that the branches have increasingly grown more comfortable working together in the many joint actions. I joined in 1994 and got my first one at basic training graduation, handed over in the handshake talked about in the podcast as part of the obligatory “Shake Take and Salute.”

  14. Jamie

    I had new student orientation at the University of Lethbridge here in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada today and we were given a challenge coin at our commencement ceremony. I don’t know if it’s a new tradition or not, they didn’t say, but I was so excited! I immediately remembered this episode and was thrilled to know what these coins were. Most of the people I spoke to didn’t know, but were interested in using them. I am excited to see how this tradition grows at this university and in the scholastic world in general!

  15. John H

    As a civilian within the DOD, I have a couple challenge coins presented to me. They are very meaningful to those of us who have the opportunity to be awarded them.

  16. Panda_dream

    Had some challenge coins made by the guys at http://www.embleholics.com They are veteran owned and operated and give back to veteran non-profits. A great group of guys and made some amazing coins. Also their customer support is on it!

  17. Danielle B

    I was given a challenge coin by the security department of Disneyland when I worked there. Many of the security Cast Members (employees) are veterans so after reading this, I’m not surprised that they carry and give out coins as signs of appreciation as well.

  18. Brad A

    Can anyone enlighten me a little about challenge coins. I’ve listened to episode 156 today, which explains what they are but I feel like I’m missing a key point.

    What happens when a person gives away their coin? Do they simply have more so can give another away at a later date? Or do they only get one and once its gone they need to produce a new one?

    It seems as though you don’t give away a coin that you have recieved, but then what do you carry around for a coin check if not the one you give to people?

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