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.