Wherever there is a potential to recognize one’s achievements in life, there are those whom seek to profit from it. Unscrupulous vendors sell counterfeit military medals while worse; there are some whom promote themselves as having earned such false honors. Challenge coins are no different. Minters overseas and in the US recognize the large market for challenge coins and either mass produce a coin (also referred to as “over minting”), or replicate a distinct challenge coin exclusively for profit – all at the cost to a unit’s heritage, the commander issuing them, and the service members who’ve earned it. While the laws of the United States Criminal code my be debatable in this area, the disgrace of attempting to steal or counterfeit a military unit’s challenge coin design and ethos is no less reprehensible.
Once a niche found only in military circles, today the tradition of challenge coins also belong to law enforcement, government agencies, corporations, and even specialized groups to promote esprit de corps, recognize an achievement or success, or are presented as a token of gratitude. In the case of the military, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given a dramatic rise in the variety of challenge coins being presented; and also duplicated for commercial profit, often without a unit’s approval. When an initial contract for a challenge coin is complete, many whom purchase the coin’s dies are not aware (or told by the minter) that the die then returns to the manufacturer allowing for its continued production while the minter pockets all of the profit. Various unsavory minters and retailers have recognized the large financial gain to specifically reproduce challenge coins of distinguished leaders or specialized units. Often promoting such reproductions as “rare” or “original”, with only those whom have received such a challenge coin distinguishing the real from fake.
Take for example, the challenge coin issued by SOCOM Commander ADM William H. McRaven circa 2011.  Nicknamed the “Task Force Raven” coin, it was virtually unseen outside the Special Forces community until mid 2012.  However, shortly after the details emerged of ADM McRaven’s involvement with the Osama bin Laden mission, a near identical challenge coin appeared on the market – often selling at over $300 and promoted as the “Real TF Raven JSOC Coin”. Here the changes were very minute so as not to be immediately noticeable. The obverse is an exact duplicate of the original, representing the iconic TF Raven and three-star command in both design and color. Only some minor changes in color are notable. However, to prevent outright copyright infringement, the reverse has the Navy Seal emblem slightly mischaracterized with the eagle’s talon, trident, and flintlock incorrectly sized or placed.
Collectors and people thinking they were purchasing or trading for a legitimate challenge coin, representing a great American commander, spent a significant amount of money on a coin that was nearly worthless except as a conversational token. Worse, the prestige of ADM McRaven’s coin, and to those whom he has presented them to, is forever tarnished (if not stolen) by individuals looking to make a profit by preying upon the unsuspecting or unwise and promoting their own pirated copy.
Another classic example is the challenge coin of GEN David Petraeus (Ret.). During his time as Central Command’s (CENTCOM) commanding general, he presented his challenge coin to many in recognition for service, tasks completed, or hardship endured.  Iconic in its shield-type design of the CENTCOM unit emblem, again as GEN Petraeus’s popularity rose from his commands in Iraq, Afghanistan, and then as Director of the CIA, so to did the number of fraudulent reproductions. Because of the increasing skill of forgers, the CENTCOM coin is difficult to disconcert from fakes unless it is held side-by-side to the real challenge coin for comparison. The colors of the fern on the obverse are typically incorrect, often appearing as a lighter green. While on the reverse the edges of the signature are never clearly defined (appearing as somewhat fuzzy) a clear indicating over minting. Again promoted as “rare” or as “genuine GEN Petraeus” coins, these are often sold at high prices with little or no indication otherwise. Thus those whom earn such an award are cheapened by others seeking financial profit from the popularity of a great commander, and a unit’s pride.
In the end what I’m trying to point out is that while many commanders and military units have gone out of their way to provide soldiers with a unique memory and award, there are individuals out there willing to pray upon that sentiment for direct profit. Likewise, there will also be those whom claim to have earned a fraudulent challenge coin, knowing full well they are without the honor necessary to hold such a privilege. It falls to the military community at large to police such time-honored awards, documenting challenge coins not only for historical purposes but as a token of unit heritage as well. Without some measure recording them, it becomes easier for counterfeit challenge coins to proliferate the market and collections everywhere.
1. Department of Defense. “News Release.” US DoD Office of the Assistant Secetary of Defense (Public Affairs). April 6, 2011. http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=14389 (accessed October 26, 2012).
2. The National Journal. “National Security.” The Secret Team That Killed Osama bin Laden. April 6, 2011. http://www.nationaljournal.com/whitehouse/the-secret-team-that-killed-bin-laden-20110502 (accessed October 26, 2012).
3. Department of Defense. “News Release.” DoD Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs). May 5, 2004. http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=7342 (accessed October 26, 2012).