One of the first "hooks" I had into the story we were telling in Shooters was the challenge coin.
I hadn't really been aware of them in all but the most general way until 2005. After a memorial service for my brother-in-law, Dave, one of the men who served with him in Special Forces handed my wife and I a small, burnished metal disk, surprisingly heavy and decorated with Dave's unit insignia and markings.
They're fascinating artifacts, and the more I dug around, the more fascinated I became.
Most, if not all, American military units have challenge coins, and commanders often give them out as rewards to their troops. In general, the tradition holds that, when a challenge is given — when one soldier presents his coin — all others nearby must produce their coins. The troops who can't are the ones who have to buy the drinks.
It's a charming ritual, but some of the legends behind it are even more charming.
One story holds that, during World War I, a wealthy lieutenant (a pilot) commissioned several solid bronze medallions, when he gave to the other members of his squadron as mementos.
According to the "legend," one pilot — who had never owned anything so opulent — carried his coin in a pouch around his neck. After being shot down and captured by the Germans, they confiscated his belongings, but overlooked the pouch around his neck (as it was an uncommon method for carrying personal items).
During a subsequent escape and flight across No Man's Land, the unlucky aviator was captured by the French, who believed he was a German saboteur in civilian disguise.
Fortunately, he produced the coin, another French soldier recognized it, and returned the downed aviator to his unit (after which, it became tradition to carry the coin at all times).
The story is probably untrue or vastly exaggerated, like all good war stories, but it the version of the tale I choose to believe.
The coin I carry (albeit infrequently; my preference is to buy the drinks if a serviceman raises his challenge) is from Dave's Special Forces Unit: 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, Alpha Company.
Not coincidentally, the same unit that Terry Glass is a part of at the beginning of Shooters. Dave's coin means a lot to me--a connection to him now that he's gone and a tangible reminder of one of the things, other than his own family, that meant the most to him. So, it seemed fitting, during the course of the story, to use the coin as a talisman of sorts for Terry.
When it's introduced, it means a tie to a thing he loves: the Army, and his place in it.
And when we see it again, it underscores just what he's lost and is desperate to find again.