Earlier versions of this article incorrectly identified a military unit that passed out "challenge coins" in the early 1950s. It is the 17th Infantry Regiment, not the 17th Infantry Division. This version has been updated.
Military's prized 'challenge coins' become copycat fad among agencies, politicians, companies
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 12:35 AM
In the hospital, after her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in a fireball, L. Tammy Duckworth's fellow soldiers made sure four of her personal items made the trip home from Iraq with her: her wedding ring, her dog tags, her unit patch and a coin she always kept in the breast pocket of her flight suit.
To an outsider, the coin might have seemed like little more than a curious, poker chip-size trinket, designed with the emblem of her Illinois National Guard unit. To Duckworth, now an assistant secretary of veterans affairs, it was sacred: "That's my identity."
"Challenge coins," as they are known, have become an important part of the ethos of the armed forces, where the story of service members' careers - deployments, promotions, awards - is told by the ribbons and patches on their uniforms. Traditionally, commanders hand out the coins to troops for exemplary service and morale boosting. That's how Duckworth got hers. That's why it meant so much.
But in recent years, many outside the military have adopted the tradition, turning a sacrosanct ritual, some say, into a form of military chic that is now part of the Washington power game. The coin craze extends into almost every nook of the federal government. The secretaries of education, transportation and agriculture have coins. So does the EPA administrator, and even the Department of Agriculture's Office of Information Technology.
The coins have gone global - the Australian ambassador has one. And corporate: Boeing has a coin. So does Starbucks.
This coin creep is to some in the military an off-putting act of plagiarism that sullies the tradition. To others, it's a flattering statement of solidarity with those who serve.
"I don't see it as an offense," said Navy Capt. John Kirby, spokesman for Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman. "I look at it as them wanting to associate with the sacrifice that the military is making."
But others fear that the coins have become more about vanity - both the giver's and the receiver's - than about service and sacrifice.
"They've become like an autograph. It's a thing to say, 'I met this person,'" said Todd Bowers, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps and is an official at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (yes, the nonprofit group has a coin). "Now they're business cards."
In a town where status is conferred by much more than title - think of grip-and-grin-photos posted on recipients' ego walls, framed thank-you notes from politicians, appearances in book indexes and society pages - coins and who has them have become yet another means to measure, or inflate, importance.
On top, of course, is the president, who has laid his commander-in-chief coin at the graves of the fallen at Arlington National Cemetery. Soldiers have gone weepy after receiving a coin from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Beyond the top brass, the massive Pentagon bureaucracy has joined in as well. The Air Force comptroller has a coin that says "Financing the Fight." The Army Force Management Support Agency's says "Documenting the Force."