In A Nutshell
In 1861, the US Congressional Medal of Honor was born. Originally, only 200 medals were made to recognize “gallantry in action” by members of the Navy during the Civil War. Over time, the award of these medals was extended to other branches of the military. Another coveted military honor, the “challenge coin,” is less about a specific achievement and more about gratitude and relationships. Challenge coins are tokens of appreciation that are often passed by the giver to the recipient in a quick, “secret” handshake. Some members of the military also play a drinking game with challenge coins.
The Whole Bushel
In 1861, the US Congressional Medal of Honor was born. Originally, only 200 medals were made to recognize “gallantry in action” by members of the Navy during the Civil War. A couple of months later, Congress also authorized 2,000 Medals of Honor for privates and non-commissioned officers in the Army. In 1863, officers became eligible to receive medals, too.
The first six medals were awarded on March 25, 1863, to men involved in “The Great Locomotive Chase,” a Union plot to steal a Confederate train and take it to Union territory while damaging a Confederate railway system in April 1862. However, the earliest deed for which a medal was awarded occurred in February 1861, before the Civil War began. Bernard J.D. Irwin volunteered to lead Army soldiers to help men from the 7th Infantry in a region that is now Arizona. Irwin didn’t receive his medal until over 30 years later in January 1894.
Medals have also been awarded to women and minorities in the military. The first and only female recipient was Mary Walker for her conduct at Bull Run in July 1861. The first African-American recipient was William Carney for his performance at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in July 1863. It’s illegal for anyone to make, trade, buy, or sell any Medals of Honor authorized by Congress for the US military.
However, there’s a less formal military honor that isn’t subject to those restrictions. It even has its own drinking game among some members of the military. This coveted honor is less about a specific achievement and more about gratitude and relationships. It’s called a “challenge coin.”
Challenge coins are tokens of appreciation that are often passed by the giver to the recipient in a quick, “secret” handshake. While shaking hands, the giver turns his hand over so the coin will fall from his palm into the hand of the recipient. The gesture is so fast that most observers don’t notice what’s happening.
No one knows exactly when the challenge coin tradition began in the military. Some believe it was World War I. Each branch of the military has its own designs, with certain types of coins more rare as the giver becomes higher in rank.
In the Secret Service, the “CAT” (Counter Assault Team) coin and the “Counter Sniper Team” coin are quite rare. So are coins for military personnel supporting presidential aircraft Marine One and Air Force One. But the rarest—and often most coveted—is the Presidential challenge coin.
Former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Dick Cheney were the first US president and vice president, respectively, to give challenge coins. You can see Clinton’s collection of coins behind him in the presidential portrait above. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also give out their own challenge coins. Former President George W. Bush only gave his coins to show appreciation to wounded military personnel.
Some members of the military play a drinking game with challenge coins. Although the rules may vary, the game usually starts with someone throwing down his coin on the bar while yelling “coin check!” Everyone else has to produce a challenge coin. If someone can’t, that person has to buy a round of drinks. If everyone produces a coin, then the person who started the game buys the drinks.
Many active servicemen and veterans have extensive collections of challenge coins, which they proudly display on their mantles or in custom cabinets.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: Simmie Knox
Congressional Medal of Honor Society: History, FAQ
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Challenge Coin Exhibit: POTUS and VPOTUS Challenge Coins
Reuters: The secret handshake