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Golden Nugget of the Month: Challenge Coins and USAA’s Legacy

January 19, 2022 • History Factory

The following story highlights a cherished military tradition carried on at USAA, the financial services and insurance provider, serving members of the military and their families. This story was written in support of the organization’s upcoming centennial anniversary, which will begin in 2022.

The story goes that a lieutenant, an officer in the new U.S. Army Air Service like many of USAA’s founders, had a bronze medallion with his unit’s insignia minted on it. The mementos went to members of the air service before their deployment to France during World War I. 

The medal soon proved to be more than a symbol of camaraderie. Shot down and captured by the Germans, the relentless lieutenant managed to escape to the French lines. Without any identification, however, his allies presumed he was a German spy and planned to execute him — until one of them recognized the insignia on the medallion hanging around his neck. Instead of a bullet, they gave him a bottle of wine and sent him back to his unit.

The tale may be a legend. Others believe that challenge coins originated at a bar in Vietnam, where they were used to discourage those outside the infantry from entering by requiring anyone so “challenged” to produce a coin with unit insignia as proof they’d been in combat. Without one, they’d pay for a round — itself the origin of the “coin check” still perpetuated by members of the military. Whichever origin story is true, over the decades challenge coins have become an integral part of military life and culture, marking membership, instilling pride and rewarding achievement.

“In the military, the coins have always been purely about morale and commitment,” said Tracy English, a historian at the San Antonio-based 37th Training Wing. “If you walk into a high-ranking service member’s office with a big magnet, chances are you will die.”

Staffed as it is by so many military veterans and serving millions more in the services, challenge coins are well known to USAA. But it wasn’t until the beginning of the war on terror that the company began minting its own.

“After 9/11 we started having a lot of face-to-face meetings with troops being deployed and returning home, so we started giving out our own coins,” said Eric Benken, who was a USAA Military Affairs Relationship Director for 20 years. “It’s a way for us to recognize them for their service in a way that they appreciate.”

Since then, challenge coins — many prominently featuring USAA’s mission and core values — have become almost as much a part of life at USAA as in the military it serves. USAA-branded medallions are used in NFL coin flips and handed out at San Antonio Spurs basketball games. The company gives them out to associates to recognize their service and charitable support for the United Way or USAA’s Giving Campaign, to longstanding members as a token of thanks, to finishers of the USAA-sponsored Marine Corps Marathon. All carry the same spirit as the original coins, of camaraderie and accomplishment. As one coin given out by former USAA Bank President Chad Borton proudly noted, they are symbols of USAA’s commitment to “going above for those who have gone beyond.”

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