Up to the challenge: Veterans make personalized challenge coins at Area 59
January 25, 2024
Via Wyoming News Exchange
GILLETTE - When Ralph Gilbert graduated from high school in 1968, he knew he "just wasn't college material."
Three to four months after he got his high school diploma, he was fighting in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division, also known as Tropic Lightning. Gilbert was an E-4, and he provided fire support for infantry and artillery.
Fifty-five years later, Gilbert said it feels "like a lifetime ago, but it can also seem like yesterday."
"It can flash back at any time," he said. "It's one of those things that you try to bury and hide, and when it pops up, it pops up."
Today, in the military, challenge coins are handed out in recognition of one's service for a particular event or in a specific unit. When Gilbert was in Vietnam, challenge coins weren't really a thing.
"I'd never seen them back then," he said.
Gilbert and thousands of other veterans didn't get recognition when they returned from Vietnam, he said.
"When we came back, people spit at us, cussed at us, and they don't know what state of mind we were in," he said. "It wasn't real good. But we were just glad to be back."
Last week, Gilbert was at Area 59 with other veterans learning to create their own challenge coins.
They created a design on Adobe Illustrator, then used a laser cutter to engrave the design onto a piece of metal. The metal was treated with a powder coat spray to help the laser fuse the ceramic to the metal.
"My daughters can't wait to see how they turned out," Gilbert said.
On one side of his challenge coin, he had the U.S. Army's service mark, which includes the Great Seal. On the other side, Gilbert engraved Tropic Lightning's symbol, a leaf with a lightning bolt on it.
It's specifically the leaf of the taro plant, a vegetable similar to yams, which was chosen to represent the division's Hawaiian roots. Gilbert said it looks like a strawberry to him, while others might see a human heart.
Regardless of what the shape will conjure up in people's minds, for Gilbert it's a reminder of his time with Tropic Lightning. Some of it was good, and some of it wasn't so
"It's funny how you can block things out," he said. "There's things that I can remember that I don't want to, and things I try to remember, I can't."
One of the things he remembers vividly is the food they were given, which was from World War II.
"I remember eating sea rations that were older than me," he said. "I was 18, and they were way older than 18 years old, and the best things in them was beans and weenies."
The origin of challenge coins is cloudy. Some trace it all the way back to the Roman Empire, while others say it came from World War I or the Vietnam War.
According to the Department of Defense, during the Vietnam War, there was an Army infantry-run bar that tried to keep non-infantry out of the bar. If someone couldn't prove he'd been in combat, he'd have to buy drinks for everyone in the bar. At first, enemy bullets were used to prove this point, but eventually coins with one's unit insignia on it became the standard.
Another origin story claims an American pilot had several bronze medallions to be made for the men in his unit. His plane was shot down in Germany, and was eventually rescued by the French. But he didn't have any ID on him, and the French soldiers planned to execute him, thinking he was an enemy.
The pilot pulled out his medallion, and one of the soldiers recognized the unit's insignia, and his life was spared.
While the beginnings of the challenge coin aren't clear, today they represent pride, courage, identity and camaraderie. Each challenge coin has a story, unique to the person who received it.
Ellen Peterson, director of Area 59, said the idea for the challenge coin class dates back to 15 years ago.
When she taught elementary school in Virginia, she was looking for a gift to give the students who were going from sixth grade to seventh grade. She suggested the students be given challenge coins. The PTA sponsored these coins, and to this day, some of those students still have those coins, Peterson said.
This past Christmas, Peterson gave challenge coins to the administration of Gillette College, just to thank the "people who've allowed us to continue to do what we do here."
Lori Bruce served in the Army for three years, from 1990 to 1992, and in the Texas National Guard from 2001 to 2007.
On one side of her coin, she had the American flag with the word "veteran" written on it. On the other side, around the edge of the coin she has the words "Army Strong, Family Strong, America Strong."
Bruce moved to Gillette two years ago from Austin, Texas. She missed out on the first Desert Storm by about six weeks because she was still in training. She did her first National Guard drill the weekend before 9/11. And when she got out of the National Guard in 2007, about a month later "everyone got sent to Iraq."
Bruce has a challenge coin she got from a general when she was in New Orleans as part of cleanup efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
"There were so many people there, we felt kind of useless, because everything that needed to be done was being done already," she said. "Loyola University looks lovely after we got done mowing the grass and cleaning up all the downed trees."
She was called back to Texas to help with efforts after Hurricane Rita, which touched down less than a month after
"I spent a lot of time sleeping in a parking garage or a National Guard Armory. It was crazy," she said.
Josue Laboy served in the Puerto Rico Air National Guard for eight years. He was part of the 141st Air Control Squadron, nicknamed the Quijotes.
Laboy designed his coin to reflect his time as a radar technician, with a silhouette of a truck with a tactical radar unit, as well as the insignia he wore on his uniform that let people know he worked in maintenance.
He's collected quite a few challenge coins, and he uses them as milestone markers. He got one for completing basic training. When he went to Iraq in 2008, he got another challenge coin. Another coin represents the time he trained with a test squadron in Iowa.
He's made plexiglass coins at Area 59 for some of his robotics teams, and he's received safety coins from his employer, BNSF. He's built up a collection of challenge coins over the years, and these personalized ones will join Laboy's display soon.
Peterson said she plans to offer this class again, and that one doesn't have to be a veteran to participate.
"We just did a small group the first time because we wanted to make sure we practiced the class first," she said.
These three veterans find themselves in Area 59 often. Laboy discovered Area 59 after volunteering to become a robotics coach. Now, "I'm here all the time," he said.
"I haven't used the plasma cutter because I don't like the smell of burnt metal, but I need to start working with that," he said.
Gilbert, a retired welder, has been utilizing the maker space for more than three years. At 74, he's "learning all the time" how to use the different machines.
"It's a lot of fun, it takes the boredom out, and it gets you out from in front of the TV which is the worst thing in the world," he said.
"I can come up here and socialize and make things, get out of my house, and not spend a bunch of money," Bruce said. "This is where I come to hang out."
This story was published on January 16, 2024.