Coin-Giving Tradition Symbolizes Connection to, Appreciation of Troops
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2007 When Marine Gen. Peter Pace retires Oct. 1, so too will the signature coin that he shared with thousands of servicemembers, family members and veterans he’s met personally during his two years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Shown here is one of the signature coins handed out by U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during his visit at a forward operating base in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, Sept. 2, 2007. Pace shared the coins wherever he went as an expression of thanks to servicemembers, their families and veterans. Photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The Pentagon-shaped coin has become a physical extension of the chairman -- part calling card, part memento and part symbol of appreciation for service to country and a job well done.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, Pace’s senior enlisted advisor, called it “a coin of excellence” that recognizes actions beyond the call of duty, both big and small.
Wherever Pace traveled -- the halls of the Pentagon, military installations stateside and overseas, forward operating bases in combat zones -- he rarely missed an opportunity to walk up to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to thank them for their service. As he looked them in the eye and shook their hands, he inevitably slipped his personal coin into their palms.
Pace shared his coin with wounded troops being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military medical facilities. During an early-June town hall meeting at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, he offered up a coin to the first family member in a group about to be affected by the Army’s new 15-month deployment policy who was willing to step forward to ask a question.
In early August, Pace presented coins to all 150 new recruits he swore into the military at Pennsylvania’s Pocono International Raceway just before a NASCAR race. “If you’re joining the United States Army today, then I want you to have my coin,” the chairman told one of the recruits, who probably had no concept at the time of what the coin represented.
Military coins, whether commander’s coins, challenge coins, or unit and squadron coins, have become increasingly popular throughout the military.
Stories of where the custom originated vary widely. One of the most accepted traces it to World War I, when a wealthy lieutenant had bronze unit medallions struck for his squadron. As the story goes, a squadron pilot who was shot down and captured behind German lines ended up with nothing but that medallion to identify himself after his escape. Ultimately, the identifying coin ended up saving him from being executed by the French as a spy.
The squadron’s tradition of medallion or coin carrying continued, with “challenges” regularly made to ensure all members had theirs handy. A unit member who couldn’t quickly produce the medallion when challenged had to buy the challenger a drink. But if the medallion could be slapped down, the challenger had to buy.
Over the years, some units have continued this tradition. But more commonly, military coins have become a symbol of affiliation that’s used to boost morale, foster esprit de corps, and honor service.
Coin-collecting has become something of a military tradition. President Clinton is said to have saved the coins U.S. servicemembers presented him while he was in office, and his official White House portrait shows several racks of those coins in the background.
When President Bush made his unannounced visit to Iraq earlier this month, he returned with a military coin presented to him by a Marine Corps unit at Al Asad Air Base.
Many servicemembers have become coin collectors, too, and it’s not unusual to walk into a headquarters building to see a table full of military coins, all protected under glass.
But as many coins as some people may acquire, few are as distinctive -- or considered as prestigious to possess -- as Pace’s.
Embossed with his name and title, four stars, the seals of all four military services, and the Joint Staff flag and crest, the coin is a work of art in itself. It’s not the kind of coin quickly slipped into a pocket; recipients typically pause when they feel its weight in their palms and roll it over to study its details.
When he presents the coin, as in a Sept. 20 ceremony during which he said goodbye to troops serving at the Pentagon, Pace frequently offers a joke. “They're worth about 5,000 bucks on eBay,” he told servicemembers as they lined up to shake the chairman’s hand and receive his coin. “When you log on, the price may have changed a little bit. But when I logged on this morning, it was worth about 5,000 bucks.”
This morning, not a single one of Pace’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff coins was anywhere to be found on eBay. Gainey said that’s because Pace’s coins have become so coveted by troops who think of the chairman as “a rock star” who always looks out for their interests.
“It’s so much more than a just a little piece of metal,” Gainey said. “There are some soldiers out there who would much rather have his coin than a medal.”
At last week’s farewell ceremony at the Pentagon, Pace hinted that he understands the coin’s effect and the symbolism it conveys.
Pace urged the servicemembers to approach him as the ceremony wrapped up so he would “have the opportunity to shake your hand, to give you a very small memento and to look you in the eye and tell you, ‘thank you.’
“And through you,” Pace continued, he would be able “to say thank you to so many who are out there serving our country right now, to tell you I love you and I will miss you.”