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A small collection out of 33 unique challenge coins curated by The National Museum of the Marine Corps, July 20, aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Photo by Cassandra Brown

Curated challenge coins represent Marines’ Experiences

6 Aug 2015 | Cassandra Brown Marine Corps Base Quantico

Handled carefully with cotton gloves, these unique challenge coins are a physical representation of a Marine’s experience.

Thirty-three coins make up the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ collection, housed in the curatorial department aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico.

One coin from a helicopter squadron resembles a playing card for their nickname Ace of Spades.

A gold, circular coin with reliefs of a variety of aircraft commemorates the centennial anniversary of Marine Corps aviation. Some are colored with bright enamel and others are bold, meant to make a statement.

Coins for the collection are either donated by an individual or obtained by curators from different units.

The coin is then recommended for inclusion in the collection. The director of the museum has the final say for all donations.

“When they come across, we try to collect those that have the strongest providence, the most interesting stories attached to them,” said Ben Kristy, aviation curator for the museum. “We limit our intake to those that have really intriguing personal stories to that Marine. Some have a whole collection, an array…it’s a physical manifestation of their career and each one has a meaning to it.”

According to lore, the tradition of challenge coins date back to World War I and are usually given as a symbol of gratitude, honor, or allegiance.

Although none are displayed in the museum at this time, Jennifer Castro, curator of cultural and material history for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, has nominated a Mortuary Affairs coin for inclusion in the final phase of the museum, scheduled to open in 2018.

Below are stories about three unique challenge coins in the museum’s collection.

Mortuary Affairs Company Coin (Or Personnel Retrieval Platoon)

Mortuary Affairs Company Coin (in 2005 officially established as Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company) is reminiscent of the shape of a dog tag, the mortuary affairs coin is one of only 400 commissioned by retired Lt. Col. John M Cassady and retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Cheryl G. Ites.

One side includes the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, with the text Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The other side was designed for the mortuary affairs Marines and depicts a rifle and shovel cross behind a skull, reminiscent of a Jolly Roger.

Commissioned by Cassady and Ites for the Personnel Retrieval and Processing detachment, 4th Force Service Support Group, 4th Marine Division, the coin was given to individuals from the unit who went above and beyond their duties.

The detachment of Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company deployed were tasked with the recovery of U.S., and enemy, quasi-insurgent and civilian remains in Iraq.

The difficult job included meticulously documenting and preparing enemy, quasi-insurgent and local civilian remains for burial with religious compliance and tradition.

Ites donated the coin along with a number of other objects to the museum from her time as the Services and Mortuary Affairs Officer responsible for the mortuary affairs response and the Personnel Retrieval and Processing detachment during the second battle of Fallujah, part of Operation Al Fajr.

During her deployment, she was responsible for training over 300 Marines in mortuary affairs procedures. She also developed the concept of operations for mortuary affairs, according to Castro.

Also included in the donation was an unofficial flag or guidon which matched the challenge coin.

Castro nominated both the coin and guidon for exhibit in the final phase of the museum because of its rarity.

Commanders Coin:

This green and yellow enameled coin depicts the Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464 Condors.

The Commanders Coin was donated by Lt. Col. Alison Thompson who became the first female Marine to command a squadron in combat operation in 2011 when she led HMH-464 to Afghanistan. A decade earlier she and her unit first deployed to Afghanistan.

Evil Eyes coin:

Part challenge coin, part bottle opener, this coin was produced in 2011 to commemorate the HMM-163 (Reinforced) Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron.

The black enamel coin includes furrowed, narrow eyes to depict the squadron’s nickname, Evil Eyes. However, their insignia patch refers to the unit as the Ridge Runners.

The reverse side of the coin has raised images of the five Marine Corps aircraft types operated by the unit in the air combat element.

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— Writer:
Marine Corps Base Quantico