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My Story: Military Challenge Coins After a Decade in the Army

Collecting military challenge coins is something that service members understand. However, those outside the military may have never seen them before or comprehend their unique history. Many purposes are served by challenge coins in the military. One is to reward exceptional performance during training or combat operations. Rewarding excellence is commonly utilized among military leaders to incentivize excellence and raise the morale of a unit. At other times coins are awarded to all service members involved in a particular unit or mission. This shows that each Solider awarded the coin belongs to that unit or contributed to the mission. When I see a military challenge coin, I try to identify the unit, operation, or other insignia to determine if I recognize those features.

I was unaware of the traditions of military challenge coins until I arrived at West Point. As a cadet at the United States Military Academy, I often interacted with Army officers and senior non-commissioned officers who had on their desk or in their office a large collection of military challenge coins. I would sometimes recognize the unit insignia of a well known Army unit or a combat operation or training center that was displayed on a specific coin.

I distinctly remember the first time I was personally awarded a military challenge coin. As a cadet, I volunteered to be on the Color Guard during my sophomore year. As part of my Color Guard duties that year, I often carried general officer flags during parades. One day, as I was performing that duty for the Commandant of Cadets, Brigadier General Robert L. Caslen, the General surprised me by shaking my hand and thanking me for doing an excellent job in performing my duties. He presented me with a coin bearing one star and the West Point insignia that to this day is the military challenge coin of the highest rank that I have been awarded.

I received three more coins while at West Point. Two were awarded during my cadet troop leadership training experience at Fort Hood, Texas, with the Regulator Battery with the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Unit, while the last one was granted following a three week internship with the US Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command in Orlando, Florida.

I received five coins during my 2.5 years with the 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Casey and Hovey Korea. Four of those coins were awarded during my time as a company fire support officer at the First Tank Battalion, 1-72AR. The fifth was granted during my service as a fire direction officer, platoon leader, or personnel officer for the first battalion fifteenth field artillery regiment “First to Fire!” During my 1.5 years in Vilseck, Germany with the 2nd Cavalry regiment, I did not receive any coins.

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During my time with the Tennessee Army National Guard from 2015 until the present, I added seven coins to my collection. I was awarded the coin of the 278th ACR by COL H. Warner Holt, II in 2016. COL Holt told me on numerous occasions that he was glad to have me as a part of the unit and helped me feel welcome in the TNARNG. I enjoyed working with COL Holt during his time in command. I was awarded the Regimental Fires Squadron coin by LTC John King in a ceremony where I was recognized as the Squadron Officer of Annual Training at Fort Hood, TX in 2017. Several of my Soldiers later told me that was the only time they remember someone assigned as the logistics officer (S-4) to have been recognized by the Squadron leadership for outstanding performance.

Before my deployment to Poland I was at Fort Bliss, TX, for mobilization. While there, I was able to catch up with my friend LTC Brad Fausnaugh. Brad and I had served together in Germany with the Field Artillery Squadron of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. Brad told me he wished me the best of luck on my upcoming deployment and presented me with the coin of the 2-3 Field Artillery. While in Poland I received a coin from the Romanian Blue Scorpion Air Defense unit and a coin for Operation Atlantic Resolve that shows where US Military bases in Poland were in 2019.

The coin that I am most proud of bears my name and that of my teammate, 1SG Dustin Dunn. During our Poland deployment, 1SG Dunn and I decided to purchase coins to commemorate the deployment for our Battery. We picked a design that turned out to be an excellent symbolism of our deployment, and the significance of the coin is very meaningful to me. On the front appears the crossed cannons of the field artillery with a red background, as red is the traditional branch color of the Field Artillery. The Bulldog at the center of the coin is the Battery mascot. The script on the front states BRAVO BATTERY TF2 eFP POLAND and the Field Artillery motto, KING OF BATTLE. On the backside of the coin, the Battle Group Poland logo is featured which includes a map of Poland overlayed with the flags of our four allied nations that worked together in the Battle Group: Croatia, Romania, the United Kingdom, and the United States. During a ceremony in January 2020, we awarded these coins to each Soldier in the Battery in recognition of their contribution to the success of the BULLDOG Battery mission in Poland.

The final challenge coin in my current collection was received on September 12, 2020. LTC John King awarded me with the Regimental Fires Squadron coin as he thanked me for my leadership of the Bulldog Battery over the past thirteen months. September 12 marked the successful completion of my second command of a field artillery battery in the Tennessee Army National Guard. I will forever be proud of the fact that I commanded 105 Soldiers in a forwarded deployed training mission and brought every Soldier back home safely to Tennessee.

After 10 years of service in the Army, I can look at each of my sixteen coins and be reminded of my experience in the Army. Examining them helps me remember and reflect on my time as an Army officer. Being introspective I can examine what I learned from each of these experiences, whether it be perseverance through adversity or the ability to learn from mistakes. Overall, I am quite thankful that I have been able to travel and grow as a leader in the Army. Being stationed in Korea, Germany, and Poland has greatly affected my world view and helped broaden my perspectives. Having successfully finished my time as a company grade officer, I look forward to future challenges and giving my best effort to each mission for which I am assigned. Perhaps I will continue to add to my military coin collection during the remainder of my service in the Tennessee Army National Guard.

Note:  Robert L. Caslen Jr. would later command the 25th Infantry Division and was promoted to LTG as the Superintendent of West Point. Caslen retired from the Army in 2018.  On July 19, 2019, Caslen was selected as President of the University of South Carolina, a position he currently holds.

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