Editorial

Challenge Coins

(Photo courtesy Jim McNeff)

Challenge Coins

Traditions are very important; they’re woven into every aspect of our society. Perhaps the only constant in these traditions, is that they will all eventually experience some sort of change. Many traditions flourish because of one simple ingredient, marketing! Change isn’t always bad. It isn’t always good either. But it’s a distinct part of life, it’s undisputable and although many are reluctant to accept it, it happens nonetheless.

Challenge Coins are part of a heated debate amongst those who collect them and recently, I found myself right in the thick of it. It seems that a handful of collectors refuse to accept change. They believe things should always be as they were in the past. But in reality, they’re getting passed by, as a new generation of challenge coin collectors take the hobby by storm!

challenge coins
Challenge coins. (Photo courtesy Jim McNeff)

A challenge coin collector has an idea for a coin but to bring it to life, they must make 100 because that’s the minimum quantity to manufacture them. So they make the coins and keep one for their collection.

Next, they set aside a handful of them for trading, and then make the others available to fellow collectors at a reasonable price. They post about it on various challenge coin groups on Facebook and the frenzy begins.

Selling some of the coins helps defray what it cost them for the coins they kept to trade, and put in their personal collection. With any luck, they may even generate some more funds for the next great challenge coin idea they have. It’s an artistic, creative, and rewarding endeavor but it’s not without it’s fair share of haters.

The haters create their own rules for the hobby; they decide what coins should or should not be made and how they should be shared. If you deviate from what they consider to be the “rules of the challenge coin” they make a concerted effort to devalue your contribution to the hobby and belittle you. They often ridicule your designs and resort to bully tactics. They shun you from the Facebook groups and block anybody who says anything contrary to what they say.

There is a Facebook group called Federal Challenge Coins only who’s admin is a retired Secret Service agent who’s profile lists him as CF Conley. He has a berated challenge coin maker with explicit tirades laced with obscenities and hate. If anybody responds to the contrary, they are banished from the page. It’s the high school equivalent to a bully kicking you out of the lunch table in the cafeteria because they don’t like what you chose to wear to school.

As a law enforcement veteran who has a passion for challenge coins, I have seen this happen first hand.

As somebody who admittedly suffers from PTSD, I have benefitted greatly from having challenge coins as a creative outlet. The network of likeminded individuals I met while engaged in this hobby was also very therapeutic. It kept my mind moving and motivated me to keep creating. Getting messages all the time from people telling me how much they loved my designs was very powerful. It made me feel great and that was only part of it. These great feelings all stopped when a small group of people decided that my success had impacted them too much.

In the past year, I had created over 400 different coins. I had successfully applied for and received a trademark and had a patent pending on a revolutionary design. I was doing great things with the money from the coins too. I donated thousands of dollars to charities and people in need. I funded a Breast Cancer Awareness BBQ for over 300 people and even sent $1,500 to the family of a little boy with cancer not to mention helping Explorer programs quite a bit.

Every so often, I would see a nasty post on Facebook or YouTube from other coin makers, the competition! See, what drove me into making challenge coins on my own was the greed of other manufacturers. I learned that I was paying way too much while my so-called brothers in arms lined their pockets.

They would charge extra to have a hole in a coin. They would charge a dollar to etch the side of the coin.

I eventually learned that the factory does not charge for there to be a hole in a coin and a laser etch has a cost of eight cents. I vowed to never extort fellow collectors in that manner and began to offer 100 custom coins starting at just $450, which was half of what competitors were charging.

In response, they began to say that I stole their designs or whatever else they could cook up to tarnish my reputation. Let’s be honest, there were coins that I made which had been influenced by other coins. Everything is influenced by something. If I saw a design fall short, I was happy to create it properly and the response from other collectors was reinforcement that I was doing it right.

As for the haters, I just shrugged off what they said. I figured that I had haters because I was making an impact and people were jealous. Then the hateful posts started getting worse. The posts were generally from current law enforcement officers or retired police.

Despite their bully tactics, I assumed they had integrity but I was mistaking. Eventually they started to encourage others to hate me by telling lies about who I was and what I represented. They said my coins were “fake.” They said I was not a law enforcement officer and that I was a graphic designer in a boardroom profiting from challenge coins. I never chimed in to dispel their lies, I just kept doing what I thought was right. I kept being an artist.

challenge coins
Challenge coins. (Photo courtesy Jim McNeff)

In retrospect, what they did was slander me. My defamation was the result and my name and a brand I had created was tarnished.

But why?

Because I was very successful and it impacted their side hustle. Another reason, it bothered some because it impacted their ability to do the very same thing. So they encouraged others in their challenge coin group to call internal affairs and a long list of other places to discredit me and ultimately make my life a living hell.

So much for integrity because they had none. Their behavior was nothing short of bully tactics.

I expressed myself through my art and put my designs on coins. I researched my right to do so and was confident that I was protected by the 1st Amendment. Not to mention case law and legal precedent.

Moreover, there were hundreds if not thousands of other people doing precisely what I was doing; the only exception was my ability to scale it and to donate large sums of money to worthy causes. However, none of that prevented these bullies from derailing me and sending me into an emotional and financial tailspin.

As I began the process to close on my dream property, it was a stressful time. I went back and forth with the mortgage company, it was a roller coaster. It was not a smooth process and it took it’s toll on me. I finally started hearing the hatred that I had long ignored and it began to overwhelm me.

My PTSD took over and depression was not far behind. It took many days for me to come to terms with it, but although I had sent out almost 8,000 orders in 9 months to an enormous amount of supporters, a small group of less then a dozen people had just destroyed something that was so special to me. In doing so, they hurt me and my family. They made me into something I never thought I would be again, a victim.

Here I am, making coins for athletes and television stars like Michael Strahan. I had just created a coin for retired Msgt. Green Beret Tu Lam who is on a TV show on the History channel. Fresh from a series of discussions with the WWE to be their official challenge coin creator, I was making great strides in a hobby that I adored. Donald Trump Jr. loved my coins too, he texted me upon receiving them.

But a small group of bullies were undoing it all. Unraveling my dream to be an artist.

Being a victim was a tradition that I thought was in my past, but I was wrong.

Speaking of traditions, let’s discuss some. Face it, traditions come from something that was vital to our past. They have helped to create the future, which is what we’re living in now. In order for a tradition to live on, it must evolve. The same is true of even the most sacred things.

Surely you don’t think Santa Claus was the same when he was first conceived? Even Coca-Cola has changed. Cars didn’t always have motors either. There are many factors to the “how” or the “why” and it’s not always easy to pin them down. Sometimes it’s technology; sometimes it’s finances or an improvement to an existing process that influences a tradition to change. Sometimes it’s all of the above. But if there is a tradition alive and well today that was born a century ago, you better believe some aspects of that tradition have changed over the years.

I want to provide an example so you can see what I’m talking about.

Let’s look at baseball cards. They didn’t start out in a pack with a piece of gum. They were actually intended for adults only. They came with tobacco products. So there you have it! They started as a “tobacco card” that evolved into a “baseball card” and that very evolution became one of America’s most revered traditions, sports card collecting. But it didn’t stop there. It was just getting started!

Traditionally, these cardboard keepsakes were free. You couldn’t buy them. But once you got them, you could trade them, you could sell them, you could stick them in your bicycle wheel spokes too.

But imagine if the ability to buy these cards never came to happen. What if they were still only available with a cigar or a pack of cigarettes? Would they be more meaningful? Would they be more sought after? I think not.

I think making them available to the masses is what engrained them in the hearts and minds of so many people. It certainly sparked a revolution that generated millions of dollars for a plethora of companies that popped to create them, store them, trade and sell them, etc. Having the ability to expand their reach made them what they are today and they’re part of a tradition that is still changing.

Imagine the collectors of today who are dead set on keeping their cards in pristine condition. This is in stark contrast to those who once flipped their cards or stuck them in their bike wheels, right? Are either of these “collectors” wrong? Is it wrong that baseball cards became football cards or basketball cards, or even monster truck cards?!

I would say that as long as all of the above enjoy what they do with their cards, it’s not up to anybody else to pass judgment. And if any one group has an opinion, they are entitled, but it doesn’t make the other group’s opinion or desire to collect or enjoy theirs any less important or relevant.

These “cards” became a hobby and the individual hobbyists guided the path they took. It was their demand that led to an industry and the evolution of an American tradition.

Now, many years later, there are “digital trading cards” that exist only within an app. They are opened, collected, and even sold or traded within a smart phone! How does that make the past generations of collectors feel? In my opinion, it’s terrific because it brings an entirely new generation into the passion of collecting.

There is another tradition that goes back over a century ago. It’s called Challenge Coins. Recently, as I mentioned, the tradition of challenge coins has sparked quite the debate.

See, many years ago, these coins existed only within the Military. They were given to members of individual units by military leadership. Those coins typically featured a unit’s insignia and/or a leader’s rank. That tradition gradually changed (or evolved) when members of units began making coins for themselves to give others. No longer was the challenge coin exclusive to leadership only.

These coins became very sought after and were traded amongst service members. They were also given as an award for assistance to another unit or for an accomplishment.

Eventually, the military began creating challenge coins as a recruitment tool to give to the public, which brought them to the masses, beyond the service members.

These coins are traditionally called “challenge coins” because if a group of soldiers were at a bar and one member put his coin down, the challenge began. If you didn’t have your coin, you paid for the next round. The coin with the highest rank on it would win in the event everybody slapped down a coin.

The public quickly caught onto the collectability of these coins and veterans who collected while in the service caught the challenge coin bug and didn’t want to stop.

Like baseball card collecting, it’s a bit addictive. Many veterans are very proud of their collections and want to continue collecting beyond their military career.

disabled Navy veteran
(Photo courtesy navylive.dodlive.mil)

Therefore, the secondary market was born and is flourishing. It wasn’t long until law enforcement agencies adopted similar coins. In fact, even the President of the United States has their own challenge coin.

To that extent, supply and demand mixed with free enterprise and coins began being sold. Many gift shops, websites, and collectors themselves, often veterans or law enforcement personnel create coins for sale or trade. After all, they have to come from somewhere and the challenge coin fairy isn’t exactly waiting to slip one under your pillow.

There doesn’t seem to be a tree growing challenge coins either. Further influencing the need for collectors to create coins on their own, many agencies have regulations preventing the use of official government funds to procure challenge coins.

Similar to the evolution that transformed tobacco cards to sports cards, an entire industry has evolved and challenge coins are made and collected for many things that have nothing to do with their genesis.

In fact, there are Challenge Coins from Major League Baseball, the NFL, Pro-Wrestling, and even Disney and super hero challenge coins!

There are challenge coins designed by veterans, police personnel, and even kids. The only thing synonymous with the array of coins available is their inherent collectability.

So if the coins are no longer the quintessential “challenge coin” or they don’t meet the criteria that certain diehard collectors (or bullies) decide they should, then why are so many people collecting them?

There are groups on Facebook with members in the thousands and many coins changing hands each day despite the fact that they are not like the coins of yesteryear. In fact, many of these “coins” are not even round. Some are rectangular. Some are shaped like cars or guns. There are even challenge coins in the shape of bulletproof vests. So maybe the term “challenge coin” is the only part of the tradition that hasn’t changed and perhaps that’s the very best part.

The debate of what characteristics a challenge coin must have in order to be authentic are widely disputed. Many coins are serious. Many are a parody. Some are politic statements. But every coin is art and as they say, art is in the eye of the beholder.

Should car manufacturers no longer refer to the strength of an engine as “horsepower” since the vehicle is no longer pulled by a horse? I think not. I think the very best part about every tradition is where it began and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

– LEO in America

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