The Marine Corps is known for its brotherhood and unity, and the pride that Marines have in being a part of one of the greatest fighting forces in the world. Many corpsmen carry challenge coins, which are large coins with an imprinted emblem or insignia of a unit or in honor of a special occasion.
Challenge coins are a long-held tradition in the military and have been a part of military culture for over one hundred years. Challenge coins have many various roles in the military, as they can be created to recognize an individual or special event, and often serve as mementos, rewards or signs of camaraderie.
However, there is a rich tradition in the “coin check” that is often initiated by carriers of challenge coins. As you’ll see, Marine Corps challenge coins and challenge coins carried by other branches of the military often result in coin checks, a bar game that can be costly if you aren’t within arm’s reach of your own challenge coin.
Challenge Coin Marine Corps
What is a Marine Corps Challenge Coin? There are challenge coins for just about every branch of service and units within each branch. They can be issued to members of a unit with the unit’s insignia or indicate a particular combat event in which the unit participated.
They may also be issued on special occasions or on commemorative anniversaries, or by important military officials as high as the Secretary of Defense. Non-military members such as high-ranking individuals in political office also sometimes have challenge coins cast in order to give away to those deserving of them. Coins may also be given in recognition of one’s hard work or diligence. A Marine Corps challenge coin will obviously point to the carrier’s service in the Corps, or a special achievement or occasion within their role.
Challenge coins may be nice mementos of hard work or a special event, but they’re also used in something called a “coin check” which is a way of proving one’s association with a unit or organization.
Marine Corps Challenge Coin History
A number of possibilities exist as to how the challenge coin or “coin check” originated; many historians disagree on its direct origins and so point to a number of different accounts.
One possibility is that the significance of challenge coins began in World War I when a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps was captured by the Germans in France. The Germans took everything from him including all identifying paperwork and identification. He managed to escape to a French village, but the French villagers couldn’t identify who he was or where he was from, so they wanted to execute him. However, he still had a medallion with his unit’s insignia printed on it hanging around his neck and was able to avoid execution when a French villager recognized it as an American insignia.
Another more plausible explanation is that in Vietnam, challenge coins were used by an Army infantryman to keep non-infantrymen out of a bar by requiring non-infantrymen to buy a round of drinks for the entire room if they couldn’t prove their experience in combat. This initially started by bar-goers presenting evidence of enemy bullets, or other potentially dangerous things like grenades and weapons. A coin from one’s unit became the safer, alternative means of proving one’s combat experience and this is likely where the name “challenge coin” or “coin check” came from.
Regardless of which story is true, or if the true origin of the challenge coin is a combination of both, it is safe to say that the history of the challenge coin is rooted in the common occurrence of a group of acquaintances trying to find a way to prove each other’s association with a military unit or accomplishments within their own unit.
Marine Corps Challenge Coin Rules
Though a challenge coin or more properly termed “coin check” may sound like a simple process, there are actually a number of specific rules to be followed. And the consequences for losing a coin check can be costly!
Members of an organization or unit are tacitly expected to carry their challenge coins with them at all times, usually a coin with their unit’s insignia on it and in this case, one indicating that you belong to the Marine Corps.
A person begins a coin check by pulling out their coin and raising it in the air or placing it firmly on the bar or table while announcing that they’re initiating a coin check. Everyone within earshot is expected to produce their own challenge coin. Those that cannot are expected to buy a round of drinks for everyone participating. If everyone meets the challenge and produces a challenge coin, then the challenger must buy a round of drinks for everyone.
Marine Corps Coin Challenge
In the Marine Corps, an “esprit de corps” is an essential part of being a member of this elite fighting force. Carrying a challenge coin is not only a sign of brotherhood and belonging, but also a long-held tradition in the military to prove one’s association with their unit or branch of service.
Historically, the tradition of challenge coins may have been associated with the fact that it helped save the life of a World War I soldier. But the coin check is often traced back to a rowdy bar tradition that began among infantrymen and non-infantrymen during the Vietnam war.
These coins are given out to prove membership in a unit, but also can represent special events or anniversaries and as recognition of a job well done. Thus, they are an item of pride and accomplishment for many in the military and specifically the Marine Corps. And interestingly, they’ve historically been a way to avoid buying drinks for the entire bar!
So if you’re a current or former member of the military hanging around a bar with other members of any branch of service, make sure your challenge coin is within reach. You may end up buying a round for everyone if it’s not.