The secret handshake

June 11, 2012

By Larry Downing

To watch a “challenge coin” being passed from one person to another is to witness the equivalent of “the secret handshake.” Starting and ending as quickly as a bullet, the ritual is performed out in plain sight and almost always in the presence of others.

Most “civilians” remain clueless as to what they witnessed even though it happened right in front of them – seeing nothing more than a stone-faced soldier or Marine at attention quietly facing a commanding officer, politician, or at best a nation’s President, before reaching out firmly to shake hands.

And just like that the longstanding military tradition of giving away a “challenge coin” is over in the blink of an eye. A small, shiny medallion riding inside the palm of one hand and seamlessly ending up in the other; similar to the practice of slipping the folded $20 dollar bill to the maitre d’ on date night.

News photographers find it nearly impossible to catch a coin in mid-flight and not many can claim those bragging rights. However, Reuters senior photographer Jason Reed beat the long odds and froze two with his camera last June while on assignment in the dangerous dust of a hot patch of Afghanistan. Reed was accompanying then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates touring hostile combat zones around the country as the Secretary said his weary goodbyes to troops before returning home and retiring as the nation’s “SecDef.”

Soldiers were honored by Gates with “the secret handshake” – leaving each with one of the most coveted souvenirs in the U.S. military, the Secretary of Defense’s personal coin. A coin forever worthy on the mantle above the home fires alongside military medals, other unit coins and glowing citations reminding future generations of the personal victories of a distant relative during adventurous times. “Challenge coins” remain hard proof of membership into a unique club requiring nothing more than sole possession of one to remain a lifetime member. Military tradition suggests all those currently serving to carry one at all times, helping to build morale and promote camaraderie.

No one can accurately identify when or where the practice of carrying them was born but with certainty almost anyone wearing a military uniform today would be able to produce one immediately when challenged while drinking inside an NCO, or Officer’s club on any post, base, or camp around the world. Once a coin is loudly slapped down onto the bar, folklore demands everyone else must quickly answer that call by slapping down their own coin or pay the price and buy drinks – and lots of them.

Collecting is eagerly pursued by most anyone today, especially in official Washington DC, where coins seem to have replaced the business card. Anyone working in the nation’s capital “who is anybody” has designed their own to pass out. Each one is unique and representative of a specific group or enthusiastic ego. And like snowflakes, no two are alike.

All coins with White House ties are treated by collectors as top drawer. The U.S. Secret Service easily monopolizes the “cool” factor because of its many different job specialties with a separate coin for each special division protecting the president.

The two Secret Service coins toughest to score are the “CAT” coin (Counter Assault Team) with the menacing paw on the front side and the “Counter Sniper Team” coin featuring a rifle’s scope cross hairs built inside a clear plastic window – prized trophies for varsity collectors. But you can’t go wrong with any of their coins.

Also at the top of a serious wish list are coins from military units, supporting either of the aircraft the president flies aboard; Air Force One and Marine One.

But not all coins are created equal and only one wears the king’s crown and that’s the rarest coin to get – the Presidential coin! That keepsake originates from only one place on earth – the right palm of the man occupying the Oval Office at the White House.

Former President George W. Bush reserved his coin for wounded military servicemen. He always kept a small stack, much like poker chips, on top of his desk for a quick draw. The chances are excellent anyone carrying his coin is combat wounded and probably deserving of it.

The Barack Obama coin is also a tough catch. Watching him pass one off is a treat to see. He enjoys giving it more than the other does receiving it and he always ends the handshake with an electric smile. His private stash is carried inside the front, left pocket of his pants and he retrieves one quickly with his left hand before transferring it to his right hand in a slick motion before beginning the “the secret handshake.” His delivery is developed much more now, after a rough start when he dropped one while awkwardly trying to give it to a Marine at the bottom of Marine One’s steps, at Joint Base Andrews.

My personal collection briefly displayed one of the Obama coins. I realized owning that coin made me an imposter compared to those returning home from combat so I found a home more deserving. I sent it to the mother of a severely wounded U.S. soldier, Shane Parsons, for him to receive on Christmas morning. Shane not only lost both his legs while serving in Iraq but suffers from traumatic brain injury. I had met him at the 6th annual National Disabled Festival in Laurel, Maryland in 2010, before a sled hockey game between military wounded veterans and he told me then how important “challenge coins” were to him.

His mother wrote to me after the holiday: “He cried for 45 minutes after seeing the coin, thank you.”


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What a terrific idea, available long before any Purple Heart, Medal of Honor, or other national recognition appears

Posted by orionciara | Report as abusive

Shane Parsons most definitely deserved that coin, how much more can a human being give to his/her country.

Posted by kiwibird | Report as abusive

A touching piece of journalism.

Posted by libertadormg | Report as abusive

“He (Obama) enjoys giving it more than the other does receiving it and he always ends the handshake with an electric smile. ”

Really? Says who? I expect a recipient of a Presidential coin is thrilled to receive such a rare memento.

Posted by nycanuck | Report as abusive

It’s a lot cheaper to give someone a shiny trinket than to provide them with the physical and mental health care they need.
That’s smart government savings right there.
What’s the inscription on the flip side?
“I killed innocent civilians and lost my mind for oil and all I got was this lousy medal”

Posted by RandomName2nd | Report as abusive

Not very “secret”, is it?

STILL – if it helps the soldiers feel a stronger sense of community amongst themselves, or a more tangible sense of support from their leaders, or gives them something positive to aspire to; this has got to be a good thing, especially if coupled with strong support with health care etc.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Owning these coins is like having a story. Usually such story start out as “I got this one for…”. Sure you may not get points towards promotion like you can with medals but it’s a way of telling others what you’ve done. Military are suckers for nostalgia so sue me. Oh and RandomName2nd, just for the record, you’re a jackass, just saying.

Posted by evenhead | Report as abusive

You know…not only do I find this article a bit of a slap in the face with regards to the most formative intelligence levels, yet…the journalist – if one can call him thus; is more than obviously swayed by his own demons and personal OP.

Yes yes yes…very objective submission, one very much yearning for the acclaimed, lofty heights of High School Journalism.


You see…I even took the time to read it, comparatively narrate its meaning to that of others and find babbling to be the main source of action informed within.

I have a coin for you…it of course does not require no change though!

Posted by NeoHuman | Report as abusive

Just as an obvious addendum…would it not be rediculous to say that having seen the obvious reference these pictures are alluding to, as well as the subject matter and ‘plain as day’ context/s, that finding other intentionally aimed [either directly or naught] agendas afoot is beyond comprehension…??? no? If one was to say that this election cycle had nothing to do with this article, would that not be a symptom of stupidity???

You see…you can already think of at least a few ulterior motives behind this apparent story. Or perhaps story “is actually” a fitting name! Calling it a news article is more to the point stretching the credible nature of what news is…perhaps.

Although in saying that, FOX seems to be credibly hacking at the noose often as not, yet continues to escape reality as silly things such as ‘facts and truth’ fluidly run down their front patches as it would if Mit Romney was suddenly confronted by a paternity DNA Test from all his children…”What do you mean ‘they’ are not all from my wife? You know I only have 1 wife, right!?”.

Posted by NeoHuman | Report as abusive

I think I got a divisional coin. I was assigned as driver to a general for a day, if I remember correctly. The best one I ever got was still the first though. It was given to me by soldiers of one squad in my unit, after one of their members was shot in the leg and I patched him up. (I was their medic). They just gave me a coin that had belonged to one of them and in a small ceremony told me I had given them confidence that their medic would be there when they got injured in combat. This was before any of us had been on a combat mission, back in 2000 probably. That’s the one I still carry around (whenever I happen to be carrying a wallet which is not all that often these days) because of the personal value of it to me.

I had a friend with the President of the US coin (had because I haven’t talked to him in years) he claimed he’d had a lot of free drinks from that one.

Posted by mr_wackydoodle | Report as abusive

This is a great piece! Challenge coins are an interesting topic… I actually found this infographic on the history of challenge coins, pretty cool graphic if anyone is interested!–n ame-Challenge-Coin-History

Posted by beckcr6 | Report as abusive

I apologize, the above link should be–n ame-Challenge-Coin-History

But yeah the graphic has great information and really tells the story well!

Posted by beckcr6 | Report as abusive

My brother was a victim of the April 2, 2014 Fort Hood attack. I personally met the president on behalf of my brother Deon Josephs and I had the wonderful pleasure of receiving a challenger coin from the president himself!!! If you would like to see pictures of the coin it’s on my facebook page. Also, I would like to say it is not just a “TRINKET” the president is giving my brother the absolute best care. He is not up for re-election so he has nothing to gain. I was not a big fan of him up until April 9th when I saw for myself that he truly did care about what happened. He spent hours meeting all of us. It is an experience I will never forget. There are no words to describe what my family has been through the last few weeks. Not even one.

Posted by TobeeJosephs | Report as abusive