As Navy Challenge Coins Get More Elaborate, a Tradition Can Become a Treasure Hunt

A collection of chief petty officer coins is displayed on August 28, 2019. The tradition of challenge coins within the chief’s mess has seen an increase in production and creativity since the late 1990s when the practice was generally reserved for senior leadership. (JOSHUA KARSTEN/STARS AND STRIPES)
A collection of chief petty officer coins is displayed on August 28, 2019. The tradition of challenge coins within the chief’s mess has seen an increase in production and creativity since the late 1990s when the practice was generally reserved for senior leadership. (JOSHUA KARSTEN/STARS AND STRIPES)

MANAMA, Bahrain -- There's a burgeoning online market for the elaborate and colorful coins pressed into the palms of Navy petty officers when they pin on their anchors and take the chief petty officer's pledge, but some critics say the trade diminishes the value of the tradition.

The origins of the military coins, also called "challenge coins," is hazy, but military leaders have bestowed them to informally recognize a job well done or as a sign of appreciation for decades, if not a century or more.

In more recent years, chiefs' messes and chiefs themselves have produced coins in an expanding variety of shapes, sizes and complex features, leading collectors, even self-described "addicts," to hunt down the more elusive and rare ones in online forums and in-person meets.

It's "devolved into a sort of trading card culture," the Navy's top enlisted sailor said in an email, saying he hoped to get back to the kind of exchange "that coins are really about," such as giving sailors a sense of belonging with a unit, recognizing hard work or saying, "Thank you, shipmate."

"I don't fault them, but I do want to bring them around to the more traditional mindset of these exchanges being special," said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith.

It's unclear when Navy leaders began bestowing coins, though the practice appears to have Army battlefield roots. The Naval History and Heritage Command could not "shed light on how this tradition started," an official said by email.

Historians and librarians with the National Defense University, Pentagon, Army and Navy could find no written records of the tradition, the Defense Department said in a blog post last month that found three popular theories tracing the origins to either World War I, Army infantry-run bars in Vietnam or the Green Berets of the 1960s.

Retired Adm. Scott Swift, former Pacific Fleet commander, believes they originated in the Civil War to promptly reward soldiers on the battlefield as awards processes lagged. He noticed it catching on in the Navy in the early 1990s around the time of Desert Storm.

For collectors, though, a commander's kudos isn't the currency, as posts online offer coins up for trade or for sale -- "UFT" and "UFS," respectively, in the insiders' lingo. Coins celebrating chief ranks generally, not a specific unit's mess, are dubbed "pride coins" and the hard-to-find issues are dubbed "unicorns."

Some collectors focus on themes, such as coins shaped like Marvel comic book characters, football team logos or beer bottles, but hang on to doubles and other extras as "trade bait."

With a collection of about 400 coins, San Diego-based Chief Petty Officer Jorge Banuelos is "either an addict or a novice" depending on who's talking, he said. Some chiefs have well over 1,000 coins.

Still, the hobby is about more than expanding a collection of metal trinkets, Banuelos said. It's about being part of a community and meeting fellow chiefs, like two coin-trading buddies who helped him find a place to live when he moved from Europe to California.

"The whole point is to unite people, to talk, hear stories," said Chief Petty Officer Orlando Atencia. "Trading coins in itself creates a memory."

Some critics, however, argue that the hobby has gotten out of hand and that coins are growing more expensive as chiefs and messes try to outdo each other with larger and more complicated designs.

Collectors and producers acknowledge that the coins have gotten more elaborate. Martin Kidder, a retired master chief who now operates a family-run coin business, remembers seeing his first chiefs' mess and command master chief coins in the late 1990s.

"All we did was take the command coin and we put a chief's cover on it," he said of the first coin he designed while stationed in Iceland in 1997.

Now coins come shaped as Iron Man or Spider Man, but with goat heads -- goat locker is a term for the chiefs' mess -- or the logo of the NFL's Miami Dolphins with an anchor on it, for example.

Kidder's business bloomed out of the growing demand almost exclusively from the chiefs' mess in the early 2000s. He got into the business after difficulty finding a coin maker willing to take orders of less than 100 coins and his customer base grew by word of mouth.

"I like where it has gone, if you want to call it a coin culture," said Kidder, whose business produced some 800,000 coins last year.

Even collectors seem to value the ones with personal meaning most. For Banuelos, his favorite is still the first coin he received from his first chief.

Atencia, who began collecting coins after receiving them from flag officers, has pushed most of his commanders' coins to the back of his case.

"People always ask why you have the admirals in the back?" Atencia said. "I tell them, ‘Because the chiefs are the ones that count.'"

Show Full Article