T: Well, the challenge coin, it started during the war. So.. the guys would go to the war, they come back, they bring stuff back like their.. their.. kind of their achievements, their, yenno, their bragging rights, right?
T: People bring in guns, ammo, explosive stuff so it’s kind of get danger, right? So that’s why they start doin’ the – that’s the kind of challenging each other, so that’s.. they start the, using coins instead, so they’re challenge coins.
T: Right. So for the Chiefs, the Navy Chiefs, the challenge coin, you’re supposed to have it with you all the time, so every time you go in the bar, you go and sit and talk, somebody can pull out the coin and start tapping, right? If they’re tapping on the bar and.. whoever doesn’t have a coin in them, they have to buy drinks for everybody else. But, if they’re tapping and everybody got a coin, the guy that’s tapping the guy gonna buy the drinks for everybody else.
T: So with the Chiefs, the coin is more.. every chief gonna walk around with a coin. Sometime they personalize their own coin or sometime they have, like, their command coin. So.. but the Chief coin a lot different than just a command coin. It’s just the Chief coin got an anchor on it; every Chief coin got an anchor on it. It’s for the Chief’s Mess, Chief Association.
Q: Did you ever get stuck on the end of the stick where you had to buy drinks?
T: Never. Friends that cover me too. Some carry multiple coins with them, they just slip it through under the table.
I collected this piece in a conversation with a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer about his experiences during active duty. I had actually heard about this piece before and inquired about it directly. The informant told me about challenge coins and other traditions in the conversation following the exchange above. He talked about how he learned this piece while completing a charge book as part of his Chief’s initiation, and took pride in never having had to pay for drinks for the Mess in his 13 years as a Chief. For my understanding, the informant explained that the Chief’s Mess is essentially the Chief’s association. Inside the Mess, they can address any and all problems conflicts, including personal ones, but outside of the Mess, the Navy Chiefs are one operational unit that “makes the Navy run.”
The informant mentioned how Navy Chiefs are expected to have challenge coins on them at all times, but this expectation is never specified. Rather, it is something that is passed from person to person in between Chiefs. Like how the informant learned about challenge coins through his charge book, a Chief would hope someone else tells him or helps him out before he has to buy drinks. Carrying a challenge coin, then, becomes a way of proving one’s identity as a Chief. It may also be a material reminder to uphold the expectations of a Navy Chief and fulfill those duties because it needs to be on you constantly. It is less of an initiation though, I would say, rather than a game or a test of sorts. The Navy Chief’s initiation is completing a charge book, and those who do not go through with this are called E7 instead of Chief. In the case of the challenge coin, the repercussions are significantly less insulting, albeit still undesirable. Also, as opposed to an initiation process, this tradition continues throughout the entirety of one’s service as a Chief rather than just at the start. The possibility of being tested for a challenge coin can happen at any time, so individuals must be constantly prepared for it. In addition, the informant mentions how he has had friends help him out when he did not have a challenge coin. This is an interesting point because the challenge coin tradition, as a whole, asserts the group identity as the Navy Chief’s Mess and their relationship as an operational unit. Since this tradition happens in the Mess, where they are able to set aside their responsibility of acting as a cohesive unit, individual interpersonal relationships can be revealed. The possibility of helping each other out is an example. Just as how only certain people may be friends within a larger group of people, potentially only certain Chiefs will be friends within a certain Mess, whether it be because of shared backgrounds or experiences, etc. These friendships work to prevent each other from punishments and potential embarrassment from being caught without a challenge coin. All in all, the challenge coin tradition of U.S. Navy Chiefs is a symbol of Chiefhood, through constantly having one on you as a material reminder of your duties and being prepared to present it as proof of your identity.