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Commander offers insight to coin presentations

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Rob Lyman
  • 96th Communications Squadron commander
One of the rewarding aspects of being a squadron commander is recognizing a job well done with a commander's coin.

While a coin may seem like a small token, few people fully realize the significant symbolism of coins in our martial heritage. Giving a coin is not just a gesture, and a coin is not a hollow memento. When I give a coin, that heritage is foremost in my mind.

In recent decades, coins have become an emblem of esprit-de-corps for military units. They are used to commemorate meaningful achievements, and, of course, to challenge comrades-at-arms in bars or officer and enlisted clubs the world over.

The modern military unit coin tradition began during the Vietnam era. Units started to mint coins with their unit emblems, and each member was required to carry the coin anywhere they went. Those challenged and without their coin paid their penance in a round of drinks. When I give a coin it is to promote esprit and pride in the unit.

During the Cold War years, military members collected rare coins and paper currency from their many travels. Rare and meaningful ones were sometimes presented to troops as mementos of a particular trip or mission. Aircrews kept paper currency from their travels taped together and compared who had the longest link of bills. The one with the "short snorter" had to buy a round at the bar. Some units began to stamp their unit emblems or other meaningful symbols onto currency coins for use as keepsakes. When I give a coin it is to emphasize the wide experience and many travels of warriors and national security professionals.

After World War II, U.S. troops in Germany introduced the "pfennig check." The pfennig was the smallest of German coins, and troops saved the oldest pfennig they could find. During World War I, it is rumored that an Army Air Forces squadron had medallions made for each unit member. The tale goes that one pilot even used the medallion for confirmation of his identity with the French Resistance after he was shot down. When I give a coin it is to commend unique accomplishment in the face of adversity.

During the Boer War at the turn of the century, most British Army troops were conscripts. The practice at the time was to decorate the officer leading a unit, rather than the individual troop, for accomplishments. Good officers would work with their Regimental Sergeant Major, the senior enlisted member of the unit, and give a new sixpence to the deserving soldier, delivered with a strong handshake, much like we pass coins today. When I give a coin it is to salute deserving individual and team achievement.

Many of our professional martial traditions evolved from the Roman Legions and have been passed through military services ever since. These include military flags and change of command ceremonies. Many of our martial terms originated from Latin words of that time. Sergeant evolved from the Latin serviens, "one who serves." Integrity evolved from the Latin integris and intregitas, meaning "whole" or "complete." The word soldier evolved from the Latin solidus, referring to the solidi, a small gold Roman coin used to pay the Legions. When I give a coin it is to extol the deep historical roots of our profession and the virtues of our ethic.

The root of our great democracy can be traced back to the ancient Greek city of Athens, and our martial tradition can be traced back to ancient Sparta. The Spartans are famous for their use of the phalanx formation, ranks of overlapping shields, in battle. Spartans placed great importance on their shields as their primary purpose was not personal protection but to maintain the integrity of the unit. Myths say that when Spartan warriors went into battle, they did not take along any personal possessions, except for a single small coin. 

The ancient Greeks believed that after death their soul had to cross the river Styx in order to enter the afterlife. The immortal Charon piloted the ferry across the river and demanded a single coin to make the journey. Ancient Greeks buried their dead with a coin to pay the ferryman, thus each Spartan carried a single coin. If a fallen comrade's coin was somehow lost, the highest honor a living warrior could give was to substitute his own coin at the burial. In effect the living warrior risked his chance of reaching the afterlife in order to ensure his fallen comrade rested in peace. When I give a coin it is to honor the unspoken, unwritten bonds between warriors and those dedicated to the security of our great Republic and our allies.

Whether you are a military member, a national security professional, a contract teammate, a family member, or a supporter of the unit, base or military personnel, next time you are given a coin think back on the rich heritage and tradition of which you have become a part. Being given a coin is a continuation of that heritage and a link to our martial history.