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.