Military Challenge Coins: The Purpose Behind Army, Navy, Air Force, and USMC Coins

Each branch of the U.S. military creates challenge coins for their own purposes.

In the Navy, one challenge coin will gain you entrance to a space on a ship so exclusive, even the captain can’t enter without an invitation. Another challenge coin from the Army was given to Detachment A, a group of clandestine soldiers that lived and operated in complete secrecy next to the Berlin Wall for over 30 years.

Understanding the purpose behind some Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force challenge coins will inspire you as you consider how to use these motivational tokens for your own organization.

Army challenge coins

The U.S. Army does much of the heavy lifting in ground battles. Their challenge coins are often reminders of fateful missions and the men and women who fought them.

Remember the mission

Senior Army officers often hand out mission-specific coins after the completion of a high-profile or particularly difficult operation. Some of those coins are rare and prized collector’s pieces.

This Army challenge coin marks the Night Stalker’s participation in Operation Urgent Fury and sold for $795.
Army Challenge Coin from Operation Urgent Fury
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Urgent Fury was the code name for the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

At dawn on October 25, 1983, helicopter pilots from the 160th Night Stalkers set out to place military personnel in key positions. Intel on enemy resistance was understated, and the pilots found themselves under fire. The mission was accomplished, and the dictator was deposed, but not before one Night Stalker pilot gave his life.

Coins like this go beyond a simple “attaboy.” They’re reminders of the sweat and tears your team has put into accomplishing a difficult task. Hand them out after opening a new branch or launching a new product.

Create camaraderie

It’s common for an Army unit, like a Division or a Brigade, to have its own coin. Army soldiers might get these challenge coins as soon as they join their new unit, or the coins may be handed out as a thank-you from unit commanders. Their purpose is to build a sense of unity among team members.

This “Detachment A” unit challenge coin from the Army might have the most interesting backstory of them all.

Army challenge coin from Detachment A Berlin
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Detachment A was a clandestine (read supersecret) unit of Green Berets (read badass soldiers) stationed along the Berlin Wall during the height of the Cold War.

The men in Detachment A spoke fluent German, wore civilian clothes, and rode in German-made vans filled with communication equipment. Their job: They traveled deep into Soviet-occupied East Germany to be a set of eyes in case the Cold War ever heated up.

For nearly three decades, it was one of the most dangerous jobs in the American military. Bob Charest, a retired master sergeant who served with Detachment A, said the men “all knew it was a suicide mission.”

After teetering on the brink of war for three decades, the Cold War chilled, the Berlin Wall came down, and Detachment A left their secret Berlin posting in 1986. Even so, it wasn’t until 2014 that their work was officially honored, in part with a coin to mark their incredible contributions.

The opportunity here is to create a coin specific to a team. It becomes the physical embodiment of that group’s loyalty and spirit.

Navy challenge coins

In the Navy, challenge coins are used as proof that you belong to an exclusive club and to recognize those who never give up.

Gain access to exclusive clubs

The chief petty officer (CPO) is the highest rated noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. CPOs are team leaders and the most technically proficient people in their environment.

In the military, the mess is where groups of soldiers and sailors gather to eat and socialize. In the Navy, CPOs have their own exclusive mess. No other personnel, including senior officers, are allowed in the CPO mess without an invitation.

Getting into the CPO mess has taken on a greater symbolic meaning, referring to the difficulty of becoming a CPO and the responsibilities that come with that assignment.

CPO mess challenge coins in the Navy, like this amazing coin shaped like an ID badge, symbolize membership in that exclusive club.

Navy CPO mess challenge coin
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Just like the CPO mess, there are exclusive clubs and milestones in your organization that deserve to be recognized. Your board of directors, frontline managers, or employees with 10 years of service could be turned into a club that others want to join, with its own well-designed coin.

Reward those who don’t quit

Sailors go through lots of rigorous training throughout their careers. None is more grueling than Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal (BUDS) school.

BUDS is a 24-week training course that pushes Navy SEAL candidates to their emotional and physical limits. At one point during the course, would-be SEALs are underwater while an instructor rips apart their SCUBA gear. The trainee has to stay submerged while putting it all back together. Terrifying!

If things get to be too much, a trainee rings a ceremonial bell to say they’re dropping out. Three out of four people who enter BUDS ring the bell.

Those that don’t “ring out” will earn a challenge coin noting their incredible accomplishment. This Navy challenge coin commemorates the 295th BUDS class.
Navy Challenge coin from BUDS
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What does it take to finish BUDS? Admiral William H. McRaven, former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, says it’s more about attitude than anything. “SEAL training really doesn't have a lot to do with how big and how strong and how fast you are. There's only one thing you have to do in SEAL training. And that's not quit.”

A coin that marks a difficult personal achievement within your organization is a great way to thank your team members who don’t quit. It could be hitting a stretch sales goal or beating a long-standing productivity record; the coin your team receives will be a long-standing reminder of what they can do.

Commemorate station locations

Sailors take a lot of pride in the ships they serve on. Challenges coins offer a physical memento of their time aboard.

This collector’s Navy challenge coin, which you can buy for $375, commemorates the most recent iteration of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Navy challenge coin from the USS Enterprise
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The coin’s details tell you a lot about the vessel.

CVN-65 was the official designation of this iteration. The nuclear symbol notes that the Enterprise was the world’s first nuclear aircraft carrier. The ship was nicknamed “Big E” because it was the largest naval vessel ever built (nearly four football fields long). The two half-globes on the coin signify the ship’s participation in Operation Sea Orbit, a circumnavigation of the entire planet.

Some organizations have noteworthy locations. Google, for example, has the Googleplex. If that sounds like you, then follow the Navy’s lead, and give your team a memento of the time they spent at your flagship locations.

Air Force challenge coins

Challenge coins are called RMOs (round metal objects) in the Air Force. RMOs play an important role in an airman’s career, starting from the very first moments of it.

Coin new employees

For the first eight and a half weeks of your career in the Air Force, you are known as “trainee.” That all changes when the wing commander or command chief master sergeant shakes your hand, skillfully transferring a coin to your palm. From that moment forward, you are known as an airman.

Air Force Airman holds his challenge coin
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Even for personnel with long, distinguished careers, the airman’s coin is one of the most most important awards they receive. "When I received my first coins for graduating both basic training and financial services apprentice school, it meant I was a part of something," Lt. Col. Michelle Libbey said in a post on the Air Force website.

The challenge coin design itself isn’t fussy or complicated. It simply includes the Air Force symbol, the year the Air Force was founded, and some Air Force logos.

Air Force challenge coin from basic training
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This particular Air Force challenge coin doesn’t even have a lot of monetary value since there are many easily available. But it carries a lot of value for the people who are joining such a prestigious organization.

Here’s the lesson: Challenge coins can help your newest members feel like they’re part of the team. And the coins will remind experienced teammates of the excitement they felt during their first moments with your group.

Commend exceptional performance

Air Force officers hand out specially designed commander coins to acknowledge a job well done. It serves as an on-the-spot thank-you for actions that don’t quite deserve an official commendation.

Some commanders coins are more valuable than others. Generally (no pun intended), the higher the rank of the officer that gives the coin, the more valuable the coin is. There’s even a drinking game involved, called a “coin check.” One person drops their coin on a table or bar. Everyone else follows suit. If you don’t have a coin, you buy drinks. If everyone has a coin, then the person with the lowest-rated coin buys drinks.

Here’s an example of a coin that will win almost every coin check in the Air Force.
Air Force challenge coin from Secretary of the Air Force
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It was handed out by former Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper. Lay this coin down and you’re drinking for free unless someone has a Presidential or Medal of Honor recipient coin.

Recognition is important to employees. And just like in the Air Force, recognition can mean something more when it comes from the top. Challenge coins are an easy way for a CEO to show on-the-spot gratitude for a job well done to any employee at any level. It doesn’t require HR paperwork or an official process.

USMC challenge coins

Marines creatively use their challenge coins to get into, and remember, important events and to honor the best of the best among them.

Mark important occasions

The Marine Corps Ball is one of the longest-standing traditions in the U.S. armed forces. This USMC challenge coin cleverly pulls double duty as a collector’s item and a ticket to the celebration.

USMC challenge coin shaped like a ticket
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In 1921, General John A. Lejeune ordered that the Marine Corps mission, history, and tradition be read to all marines every year on November 10, the anniversary of the Marine Corps’ founding. Over time, that event evolved to include formal dances, mock battles, and other celebrations.

Now, the Commander’s Ball is held in Washington, D.C., while a version of the Marine Corps Ball is held at all bases and operating areas around the world. It’s one of the longest-standing celebrations in the U.S. military.

Celebrating company milestones and anniversaries is a great opportunity to think back on where you’ve come from and how much you’ve accomplished as a team. Celebrate like a marine with a challenge coin designed to mark those important milestones.

Honor the best of the best

The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration awarded to a member of the United States military. MoH recipients have their own coin design, which they hand out as a thank-you to military and civilians alike.

This Marine describes being coined by MoH recipient Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer.

Screenshot of a Tweet showing a challenge coin
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It takes something amazing to earn a Medal of Honor. In Sgt. Meyer’s case, it meant purposefully placing himself in extreme danger to save dozens of marines and soldiers.

On September 8, 2009, during the Battle of Ganjgal, Afganistan, the forward unit of then-corporal Meyer’s battle group was caught in a U-shaped ambush by 50 Taliban fighters. Marines and allied Afghan soldiers were pinned down with no chance of escape.

Meyer took the exposed position on a vehicle-mounted machine gun while another marine drove into the fray. The duo took fire from enemy machine guns, mortars, and grenade launchers on the way to rescuing five soldiers.

Then they went back ... three more times. In all, Meyer saved 12 people directly and provided cover fire so another 24 could escape. He also recovered the bodies of four close friends who had fallen.

It’s stories like these that make MoH coins the most valuable in a game of coin check and the most valuable to collectors. This coin commemorating Audie Murphy, a MoH recipient from World War II, is currently for sale on eBay for $3,250.

Who are the heroes of your organization? Maybe it’s a longtime team member who has passed or is retiring. Or maybe it’s an enigmatic company founder. You can memorialize the heroes of your organization with a coin, just like the Marine Corps does, so effort and contributions are never forgotten.

Create a challenge coin for your own purpose

The military uses challenge coins to foster pride, fellowship, and loyalty to the mission and the team. You can take a page from the military’s manual and create a challenge coin that embodies those same characteristics in your organization.
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