FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) - Almost any officer or senior noncommissioned officer at Fort Bliss has a collection of coins they proudly show off in their work areas.
These coins, called commander's coins or challenge coins, can tell a soldier's life story. They detail where they've been stationed, what units they've served in and where they've deployed.
Commanders and senior NCOs hand out these coins as a way to thank a soldier for a job well done and going beyond the call of normal duty. The coins can serve as a way to build a common bond, create esprit de corps and spur pride in an organization, Fort Bliss Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Mendoza Sr. told the El Paso Times (http://bit.ly/1hdr3Re).
Soldiers, as they advance along in their careers, value the coins that they've received and make sure they show off the ones that mean the most to them.
"You just don't hand them out because they look cool," Mendoza said. "It's recognizing some activity or event that the soldier did that was exceptional."
Commanders and senior NCOs also give them out to deserving civilians like elected officials or people who work for organizations like the USO that provide support for the Army, said Fort Bliss Garrison commander Col. Brant V. Dayley.
Mendoza, the epitome of the no-nonsense senior NCO, has kept every coin he has ever earned and can remember exactly where he got it, who gave it to him and why.
"Each one of them has a story behind it," Mendoza said. "You don't want them just because you got them. There is a story to be told. It makes you remember something or some significant event. When you're done and gone and retired from the Army and your grandkid comes up and says, 'Grandpa, what's that coin there?' You can tell that story about what you did to get it."
Battalions, brigades and higher level units are allowed to purchase coins to give out for a job well done, Dayley said. Commanders with lower level units can purchase the coins out of their own pockets, he added.
During the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, purchasing more coins wasn't allowed, Dayley said. So, Dayley and Mendoza teamed up to design a special coin made out of a ceramic-type material along the lines of a poker chip. They paid for them out of their own pockets so they could continue to recognize soldiers for a job well done on behalf of the Fort Bliss Garrison, Dayley said. With the moratorium lifted on purchasing more coins, Fort Bliss is scheduled to get a shipment of its official Garrison coins this week, Dayley said.
Commanders at the company or platoon level have also been known to purchase their own coins and hand them out especially during deployments, Mendoza said.
"Each soldier (who was on the deployment) will get one," Mendoza said. "It's like they are tied to it for the rest of their lives. I was in 'Hell Hound Platoon' or whatever platoon you were in. It's a token that when you leave, it's like you were in that brotherhood. Only those 30 guys who were serving together will have that coin. It's a big-time bonding thing."
Coins were first given out by an affluent American pilot during World War I, said Dayley, a noted history buff. The pilot developed a bronze coin for each member of his squadron. One guy got shot down, got captured by the Germans and then escaped, Dayley said. This soldier only had the coin as identification and the French soldiers he met let him back through the lines because of that coin, Dayley said. And a tradition was born.
The coins also have a "challenge" aspect to them, Dayley said. If a commander gives you a coin, he or she can ask you at a later time to produce it. If you can't show the coin, you have to buy the commander a drink or perform some other service to the unit, Dayley said. The soldier who received a coin can also challenge the commander to produce the coin too, Dayley said.
When Dayley was a major, he served on the staff for Col. Francis G. Mahon with the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade here at Fort Bliss. Mahon, who has since retired with the rank of major general, was notorious for challenging soldiers to produce their coins at the worst possible times, like at the swimming pool, the Commissary or while playing flag football, Dayley said.
"He was always nailing guys and loving it," Dayley said.
Dayley and some other staff officers got Mahon's wife, Bitsy, to serve as an accomplice and they burst in on the colonel when he was taking a shower, because that was the only time they knew he wouldn't be carrying his coin, Dayley said.
"He bought drinks for us that night, but he made us pay for the next couple of weeks," Dayley said with a laugh.
Information from: El Paso Times, http://www.elpasotimes.com