Rooted in World War I lore, and popularized with dramatic references in books and TV shows, military challenge coins have become a powerful symbol of camaraderie and support.
Beginning this spring, they also will help recognize the sacrifice and determination of student veterans at Washington State University. The newly minted WSU challenge coins will be handed out to all graduating veterans, and to faculty and staff with military service.
“This was one of our first projects,” says WSU Veterans Coordinator Blaine Golden, noting the expanded student Veterans Center opened in 2014. “We wanted something that would show veterans we value their contributions…and are proud to be a part of their future.”
One side of the coin bears the official seal of WSU, which requires presidential approval to use, and the other side has a carefully designed logo of the University’s Office of Veteran Affairs.
The logo was designed by Marine Corps veteran and 2016 WSU graduate Courtney Hall-Mullen, who was pleased it was chosen for the challenge coin. It reinforces the military tradition of honor, courage, and commitment, which is a Marine Corps motto but one that she felt summarizes the dedication found in all branches of the U.S. military.
“I know that’s something we all have in common,” she says.
Military challenge coins date back to at least World War I but their history is largely anecdotal. One of the most commonly told stories involves a wealthy officer who led volunteer American pilots in Europe prior to official U.S. entry into the war and handed out custom-designed coins to his troops to build unity and morale. Later, one of the unit’s pilots was shot down behind enemy lines, escaped capture, and used the coin to convince suspicious French troops he was an ally rather than a saboteur.
Ever since, they’ve been a symbol of membership and accomplishment.
Military service runs deep at WSU.
The Pullman campus has hosted a continuously operating military training program in one form or another since 1892, when all male students were expected to participate in cadet drills.
Historian William L. Stimson ’89 MA, ’99 PhD notes that when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the Student Cadet Corps petitioned Governor John R. Rogers to be federalized. When he declined, several students enlisted in the military instead.
During World War II, portions of the the Pullman campus were converted to military training sites.
And following the war, Washington State saw its first big enrollment boom as veterans sought to transition into peacetime careers using their new GI benefits. Currently, veterans are about 4 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment.
Golden believes the Veteran Affairs office can help smooth the transition from military service to academia.
Historical significance and symbolism also can be found in the new challenge coin. The official WSU seal includes a depiction of founding father George Washington, himself a military veteran and one of the first advocates for U.S. veterans.
Obtaining permission to use the seal was one of Golden’s top priorities throughout the project. That permission came in May 2015 from then-President Elson S. Floyd, just two weeks before he took unexpected medical leave and lost his battle against cancer a short time later.
“We gave one of the first coins to Dr. Floyd’s family,” Golden says. “He was a big supporter of veterans and made sure he approved it right before he took his leave.”