By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
There are few organizations in the United States as steeped in tradition as the military. And one of the oldest customs is the giving of "challenge coins," privately made medallions stamped with a unit or service emblem. The ritual reportedly started during World War I, when new aviators were given coins from officers upon joining a squadron. According to one tale, a pilot was saved from execution in France after proving his identity with his coin. In a memorial ceremony this week, President Obama placed the commander in chief's coin in front of the photos of the 13 soldiers slain at Fort Hood in Texas.
Now, decades after the tradition began, the latest and possibly most meaningful coin—commemorating the recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor—has been approved by Congress and the White House. "This is kind of a big deal, actually," says Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Christopher Carney, the father of the plan. "Congress doesn't sort of reflexively mint coins." A commander in the Navy Reserves, he teamed with Illinois Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to push the bill through. "Considering the backdrop of being in two wars, you really want to honor and commemorate those who have sacrificed so much on behalf of this nation, and coins are part of that military tradition," says Carney.
The coins will be minted in $5 gold and $1 silver pieces but sold as collectors' items for much more. The expected proceeds of up to $8.5 million will go to the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
Coins are close to Carney's heart. He has collected about 100 and even made one for the homeland security subcommittee he chairs.
Kerry, the decorated Vietnam War vet, has about 190 medallions, including 87 in a display housing his Purple Heart coin. "Lindsey Graham and I were talking on a flight home from Afghanistan about the coins we've been given by soldiers and marines we've met on these trips," he tells Whispers. "You treasure them, especially if the military has been part of your life. And then I remember thinking, 'Congress creates coins all the time in honor of this and that. How the hell is it that we haven't minted a coin to commemorate the Medal of Honor recipients?' We're talking about the bravest of the brave."
"We owe them all a hell of a lot more than a coin, but it's one small way to say we know what you've done for our country," adds the Silver Star winner.
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.