The Manifold World of Challenge Coins

Challenge Coins an Airman of the U.S. Air Force received for being a member of specific shops. The serial number has been censored. Photo: LS.
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In late 2018, CoinsWeekly published an article about a fairly young tradition and an even younger field of collection: Challenge Coins of the German military forces. The piece initiated just the kind of reader feedback and discussion any journalist hopes for. It became obvious that the topic was and remains of great interest for coin enthusiasts all over the world. Hence, we want to offer you some updates about Challenge Coins, which include some of our readers’ suggestions. This time, they take us to northern Bavaria, the United States of America and all the way to New Zealand.

The U.S. Army Garrison Schweinfurt was closed in 2014. Seen here is the headquarters building of Ledward Barracks.

A record of German-American history in Schweinfurt

It is a well-known fact that the U.S. military forces operate bases in various cities across Germany. Due to the governments ongoing effort to downsize the number of overseas military bases, however, many of them, including the garrisons in Heidelberg and Schweinfurt were closed in the last few years. While you will always find peace activists protesting in front of the gates of any of said bases, the presence of U.S. service members constitutes a significant economic benefit for the respective communities – and a terrific possibility of intercultural exchange.

When the U.S. Army Garrison in Schweinfurt, located in the north of Bavaria, was closed in 2014, the Numismatische Gesellschaft Schweinfurt commemorated the special friendship and history of locals and deployed service members with the Special Issue No. 90 of their monographic series. The work by Reinhold Jordan called “Die Amerikaner in Schweinfurt. Ihre Spuren in den Motiven von Medaillen und Plaketten” is dedicated to the medals and Challenge Coins of U.S. military personnel stationed in Schweinfurt.

Members of the New Zealand Defence Force have also been designing and distributing Challenge Coins for decades.

The pride of New Zealand’s service members and collectors

Challenge Coins are also anything but unknown within the numismatic community in New Zealand. Some of the most renowned numismatic authors have published works focusing on Challenge Coins of the New Zealand armed forces. Hamish MacMaster, who currently serves as New Zealand’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has authored two editions of a catalog which will be of great interest for collectors of Challenge Coins from all over the world: New Zealand Challenge Coins: A Catalog. One of was published in 2011, the second edition in 2016. A third edition is likely to follow in the near future. Several hundred Coins associated with the New Zealand Defence Force are listed in the catalogs.

Demonstranten der American Federation of Government Protestors of the American Federation of Government Employees in the streets of Washington D.C. in January of 2019.

In commemoration of the shutdown

Two stories involving Challenge Coins have caught our attention since we last wrote about them. One involves the longest-ever shutdown the U.S. government underwent from December 22, 2018 through January 25, 2019. Countless government employees were working without pay for weeks – including the Secret Service, which is responsible for protecting the President, his family and many ambassadors around the world. Some of the more than 6,000 Secret Service agents who worked without pay during the shutdown designed and distributed a Challenge Coin to commemorate the event, strengthen camaraderie and maintain the morale.

CNN anchor Jake Tapper was the first to tweet images of the Coins. Agents and other federal employees who received one of the Coins are said to have paid for them out of their own pocket. Their reverse depicts a neon sign indicating buildings such as the Capitol and the White House were closed as well as a statement encouraging the coins’ owners not to worry as they would eventually receive backpay.

Challenge Coins are being sold for very small prices at Afghan shops and markets such as this one.

A bargain for collectors?

Another story from across the pond was published by the New York Times Magazine last month. Marine veteran Christopher Jones reported that Challenge Coins of U.S. service members were being sold in shops in Kabul for 2 Dollars or less. According to the Afghan shopkeepers he asked about the Coins, some of them were “presented to Afghans as a token of appreciation for their work as interpreters or contractors.” However, when employment contracts ended, the Challenge Coins must have been “easy objects to part with. Afghans need bread, and you can’t eat souvenir coins.”

While his writing certainly transferred a sense of shock and uncertainty about finding those beloved medals being sold in the first place, but at such a low price at that, Jones did not hide his interpretation of the discovery. In his eyes, the Coins represent a “clean, bold and simple” war that never existed in the first place.

If you want to read more about Challenge Coins, this article explains how the tradition developed in Germany and this article tells you more about one of President Trump’s celebratory Challenge Coins.