Picture this: you receive a small, exquisitely crafted token, brimming with tales of bravery, camaraderie, and an unbreakable bond among valiant sky defenders.
Welcome to the captivating realm of U.S. Air Force challenge coins, where each shining emblem carries a timeless legacy. These military challenge coins have a deep history routed in honorable military accomplishments. Airmen receive them during Air Force graduation ceremonies to commemorate their excellence.
The history behind Air Force challenge coins dates back to World War I. It was a time when the U.S. Air Force had thousands of volunteers from across the country. For more insights on how the coins evolved over the years to gain uses beyond the military, read on to find out.
Where It All Started
In one squadron that participated in World War I, a lieutenant ordered every member to have medals. These medallions featured a bronze material and carried the unit emblem.
A young pilot in the squadron always wore his medallion on his neck. Little did he know that a German patrol would capture him when their aircraft crashed.
During the capture, the Germans withheld his Air Force uniform and all other belongings. But they didn’t take the medallion, which lay on a leather pouch sitting on his neck.
How the Challenge Coin Became Relevant
The young pilot managed to escape after a bombardment where the Germans held him. He reached an isolated French outpost without his uniform or personal identification. Several French service members captured him.
Since the captors couldn’t identify him, they planned for his execution. Luckily, he showed the executioners the coin in his leather pouch, and they stopped the execution. The executioners identified the squadron emblem on the medallion.
When the story reached his squadron, other members vowed to carry their coins with them all the time. It also became a tradition to do so in the U.S. Air Force after the establishment of certain challenge coin rules.
Challenge Coin Rules
To begin the challenge, you have to draw your coin by holding it gently in the air. You also need to inform other participants that you want to start a challenge coin check.
The rules also allow you to strike or place the coin on a flat, hard surface. Either way, the participants have to respond in 15 seconds. You’ll only move within your arm’s reach and at one step to locate the coin.
If one of the participants can’t respond to a challenge, the rules require them to buy the challenge issuer a meal or a beverage. But if all participants respond with coins, the challenge issuer must buy them a beverage or meal.
Failing to buy the food as mandated violates trust in your unit. And you may have to return your challenge coin. Learn more about challenge coin rules and the relevant coin etiquette.
Responsibility for the Coin
The responsibility of the coin is on the coin holder. You can’t give anyone else your coin and ask them to use it to start a challenge.
Carrying the coin signifies your trust and loyalty in a particular unit. So, don’t take it if you can’t share the unit’s beliefs and values.
Challenge Coins Signifying the Transition From a Trainee to an Airman
Receiving an Air Force challenge coin is part of the tradition when trainees graduate into Airmen. Before graduating, trainees have to complete the mandatory basic military training.
The challenge coin marks an important milestone in airmen’s careers. Airmen get them through the Command Chief Master Sergeant or Wing Commander. After the challenge coin ceremony, the recipients go by the name ‘airmen’ instead of “trainees”.
When giving out the coins, the commander sticks to a traditional protocol. It is to ensure that the ceremony is a formality and a celebration of achievement. In particular, the giver will hand the recipient the coin through a strong yet authoritative handshake.
Versions of the Air Force Coin
The Airman’s coin evolved over the years to include various types of challenge coins. Back then, you could see an eagle clawing out of the challenge coin on the front of the first-ever version. And beneath the eagle was the phrase ‘Aerospace Power.’
When you reverse the coin, you’ll see a beautifully-designed white star featuring a tiny red dot at the center. The white star signifies the infamous Hap Arnold star.
The phrases ‘excellence in all we do,’ ‘service before self,’ and ‘integrity first, surround the coin’s edge. These phrases reflect the Air Force’s core values.
An appealing anniversary design characterized the Airman’s coin during the 60th Air Force anniversary. Even more, the final design replaces the eagle with the new U.S. Air Force symbol.
Personal Coin Designs
Air Force commanders have the freedom to create their coins. If you are one, you get a budget for creating the coins. When collecting challenge coins, you can even have them designed for a particular purpose or occasion.
Either way, the coins always stand for significance, excellence, and accomplishments. When designing one, it should acknowledge the efforts of airmen who dedicate their service to their Air Force unit and country.
A good example of a personalized coin is the first salute challenge coin. First, enlisted Air Force members receive it as an award to salute newly-commissioned officers.
Uses Beyond the Military
The challenge coin tradition is in effect in all military service branches. Non-military organizations also embrace this culture to nurture a sense of belonging and pride. They are also using it to celebrate individual achievements and milestones.
A non-military challenge coin collection may focus on brand awareness, marketing, and celebrating special events/occasions. Federal government agencies like the President’s valets, White House staff, and Secret Service have custom challenge coins.
Beyond the military and U.S. government, challenge coins spread to organizations such as NASCAR, NFL (National Football League), Boy Scouts, and Lion’s Club. World Poker Series players, Fraternal Organization members, and Public Safety workers (police officers and firefighters) have their versions of the coins.
Modern technological advances make it easier to create coins offline and online. There’s also freedom in the use of the coins.
Air Force Challenge Coins: The Takeaway
Air Force challenge coins are still an important tradition in the U.S. Air Force. They signify hard work, persistence and excellence since airmen had to make significant accomplishments to get them. The challenge coin ceremony is a formality for trainees transitioning to airmen.
Receiving a coin shows that you fully understand your new role as an airman. And as you rise in the ranks, you earn other coins to represent our excellence. Today, organizations like the Boy Scouts, Lion’s Club and fire and police departments borrow from this military tradition to celebrate individual accomplishments. Browse our blog to find more insightful posts.