Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Challenge Coin

A week ago today I received my first challenge coin, a symbol of camaraderie, respect and appreciation in the military and from General Petraeus' Command Sergeant Major no less! We had arranged a meeting last Thursday morning at 10:30am to wish him farewell and good luck as he and Petraeus finish their tour in Iraq. 

We drove to the Al-Faw Palace which is considered to be command central for the operations in Iraq. We met with CSM Hill, a jovial man who laughed a lot and was surprisingly sociable for someone with such responsibility. Before leaving he presented each of us with a challenge coin, a heavy coin about the size of a silver dollar with the insignia of his command, Multi-National Forces Iraq emblazoned on the medallion.

You may be interested to know some of the history of the challenge coin as it is a tradition now embedded in the military, to the extent that even the Red Cross has had coins made. The story, mostly legend, reads as follows:

During WW I, air warfare was a new phenomenon and pilots came from all walks of life. One of the wealthier lieutenants ordered small, solid-bronze medallions crafted which he presented to the member of his squadron. The coin was of unusual value for the time and one of the pilots tucked the coin into a leather pouch he wore around his neck for safe-keeping. As the story goes, this pilot's aircraft was damaged, he went down behind enemy lines and was then taken prisoner by the Germans. The enemy removed all personal effects from the soldier, but missed the leather pouch. As he was being transported to a permanent detention facility, the British attacked and the airman was able to escape. He donned civilian entire and made his way towards safety when he was picked up by a French patrol who believed him to be a German spy and with no identification, the air man had no proof of his nationality. Desperate to save himself from execution, the pilot pulled out the coin and showed it to his captors. One of the Frenchmen recognized the insignia from the airman's unit and spared his life. 

Once the pilot returned to his squadron, it became a tradition for soldiers to carry their coins at all times. The ensure compliance, the pilots would challenge each other to produce the coin. If the challenged could not produce the coin, he was required to buy a drink for the challenger; if the challenged could produce the coin it was the challenger who bought the drink. Over the years, the coins have come to serve as rewards or awards or to build morale among units. It was thus, with thanks and appreciate for the work of the Red Cross in Iraq, I received my very first challenge coin.

Appropriately, just a few days later, I also happened to give away my very first challenge coin to a Specialist with the 300 MP Battalion who is departing Iraq in just about 2 weeks. He was a particularly good-natured guy who took Red Cross messages for the 300th and who was always patient, efficient and most importantly, good-humored about his work. I'll miss his cheerfulness and wish him good luck when he's gone.

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