Reflecting on Challenge Coins

I’m not a fan of every military tradition, but I do like challenge coins. They’re these weird, heavy little tokens which can be imbued with substantial memory and meaning. But it isn’t the item that holds the meaning, is it? Perhaps it would best be described as an augmentative interface that equips us to better store, encode, and access meaningful memories and feelings in our own minds and spirits. Challenge coins might be modern manifestations of what Tyson Yunkaporta, in his book Sand Talk, calls “cultural items”.

Yunkaporta says something else about culture that feels significant…

“Your culture is not what your hands touch–it is what moves your hands. Your hands must not be guided by someone else’s rationality, but by your own relationality.”

Tyson Yunkaporta

Most of the coins here are meaningful to me. They are imbued with meaning for me personally because of who gave them to me and when and why.

A small case full of challenge coins

I have only ever bought one or two coins, and only ever when I felt a weird sense of obligation to. I see coins that are offered for purchase as “guided by someone else’s rationality”. I don’t like to buy coins. I don’t want a collection of tokens that mean little to me. It’s not about the artifacts. It’s about the meaning.

If the value of my coins was dictated by others’ rationality, then easily my most valuable coin would be the one given to me by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. But this is in fact one of my least meaningful. I received it while on deployment at Bagram Air Base in 2011, as Admiral Mullen and his entourage swept through our watch floor with a big bag of coins, one for each of us, a token of appreciation for being deployed I guess. We each got a coin and a handshake, but he didn’t even have time to address the room. The memory is actually amusing to me, because I remember thinking he was just like a mall Santa handing out chocolate coins. I don’t mean to disrespect the gesture, which might have meant more to others. But that coin is also imbued with memories I don’t prefer to re-invoke. I also remember thinking ‘Welp I’m never gonna get a higher-ranking coin than that’, but at that point I was still thinking in terms of coins as rational, perhaps even institutional, rather than relational.

In contrast, my favorite and most meaningful coin of my entire collection was not given to me by a General, Admiral, or a Chief Master Sergeant. It was a Technical Sergeant–someone who held the rank I do now. TSgt Nikki Molinar was my NCO Academy instructor, and she invited me into her office during the last week of class and gave me a gold coin, and I believe I almost cried at how much the gesture meant to me.

When she gave it to me, I was still in the process of comprehending how despite all of my effort over the course of our time at NCO Academy, I wasn’t even in the running for the institutionally-granted awards. This is a common theme with me. I work hard, but my motivations tend to create frictions with those of the institution. I am idiosyncratic to what institutions tend to value–part of what makes me good in the innovation space I believe. I have since learned to have peace with and even appreciate this fact. Thus, I had worked my ass off, but as is often the case, effort wasn’t the deciding factor. TSgt Molinar told me in private that she was impressed with my effort and growth over the course of our time, and she wanted to recognize that with one of her personal coins. Never mind the Levitow–I wouldn’t trade this coin for a presidential medal of freedom.

TSgt Molinar’s coin sits right next to a coin from the Chief of Staff of Space Command and two coins (weird story) from the Commander of the 16th Air Force; and the coin she gave me stands out significantly, though I do appreciate the others. The others look puny next to it. It is one of my prized possessions and it makes me smile and get all misty when I look at it and reflect on how much it meant that she saw me and connected with my experience and struggle and humanity at that time.

I think that a little too often, we think of culture as rational when it is in fact relational. This relates to how often we think through an institutional lens, when a tribal one would be better suited. Also wrapped up in this story are ideas about culture at scale and leadership and position and power, but I’ll leave it at just this for now:

Sometimes when I see TSgt Molinar’s coin in my case, this thought runs through my head “Welp, I’m never gonna get a more meaningful coin than that.”

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