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Combat Currency: The Truth About Military Coins

If you happen to find yourself in a VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) bar or some tucked-away corner that caters to veterans and current service members, it's almost a guarantee that at some point in the night, usually after the drinks have begun to take their toll, a drunken braggart will pull out his 1-star coin and demand a challenge or a drink. And how did he earn this combat currency? Well, the story is not always as thrilling as the coin-holder would make it out to be. In fact, I'd bet some real money that, if you've served, you have at least one coin that came from a "VIP Mission" just like the following one.


THE SETTING
The temperature's flirting with 130 F, and there is little to no wind, just a hot mess of sand and sweat. The sun, our most formidable enemy at the moment, is directly overhead and burrowing into our minds. She's doing a fantastic job of melting away the last bit of our strength as we sit on the tarmac, awaiting the arrival of some VIPs who want a tour of the shithole we live in.

Most of these VIP combat wannabes want to tell their grandkids one day that they visited the Middle East during the worst part of the conflict; others just want to get that extra pay for squatting in a combat zone for a few days. These missions wouldn't be so bad if everything didn't have to be so spit-shine perfect, up to and including our uniforms (even civilians with zero military background understand that war and deployments = dirt, grime, and imperfection). This is a soapbox every one of us could rant about, but no one's saying a word, as it's too hot to even complain. Instead, we just silently stand here, like the dutiful troops they want us to be, waiting to hear the "thump-thump-thump" of the blades cutting through that hot desert air.

Finally, we spot the approaching Blackhawk, Cobra gunship escorts in tow, heading towards the landing pad. There's a flurry of activity as we all make sure we look as respectable as a hardened but tired combat force can after months of living in the dirt, fighting a war. The bird's rotor-wash kicks up the winds, which is a welcome breeze that quickly turns into a maelstrom of supersonic sand and dust particles pelting our face, neck and hands. The Blackhawk touches down, engine whining to a stop, and the windstorm calms as the VIPs exit the aircraft and head towards our Platoon Leader, LT, as each of us silently checks each other over one last time for mistakes.


THE ACTION AND THE COINS
The dog-and-pony show then begins, and most of us silently wish that a last-minute mission would call us away from the madness that is VIP escort, as we all know that this duty is nothing more than our higher-ups trying to prove to the big boys in Washington they have it all under their control, that moral is high and that we genuinely love their visit. Well, in fact, any one of us would much rather fast-rope into the middle of Al-Qaeda-controlled Sadr City with nothing but a K-Bar and some MREs than continue with this ridiculous mission. Instead, we stand at attention and pay our respects as some politician bestows us with a glorified penny. Months later we'll look back on this supposed mission and just laugh about it.

If you've spent any amount of time in the military, specifically in the world's biggest sandbox, you've probably experienced at least one instance of the above and have the coin to prove it. Maybe it was a training session that your platoon won, some Colonel gives out his trademarked coin and you look at it with curious amazement while silently thinking, "I ate dirt for 3 weeks for this?" Or perhaps your unit was able to get a cool gig with Special Forces and some mysterious guy with no nameplates handed you the pieces of eight which you can never speak of. Some VIPs hand them out themselves while still others send their Secretary (usually a Colonel) to hand out the spoils of battle. One thought I am sure of, almost every warfighter wishes these translated into rank or were worth something more than simple keepsakes.

These random battle trophies were handed out to you like candy by some commander or government official; with a pat on the back for "a job well done." More than likely, you've even started a collection of this coinage. And depending on the visibility of a unit to command, your collection could become a hoarding problem. But, wherever you go, you keep the highest-ranking coin on hand, just in case some jackass pulls one out for a free drink. After all, the only true value they have is in bragging rights, and you might as well drink to them. I know I've seen hundreds, if not thousands of examples of this meritorious currency from fellow coin-holders, and some of them are quite unique or funny, others just plain weird.

The coins at the top of this post showcase some of the best examples of Uncle Sam's Monopoly Money, collected from fellow veterans, current service members (one company once created a Maxim coin). We hope you can appreciate our show-and-tell presentation of this combat currency. Oh, by the way, you owe us each a drink if you can't beat what we've got. Just send a case of scotch to Maxim c/o Doc Parsons . . . or meet me down at the local VFW.