Jesse Medford dropped what he was doing and raced to the sound of his platoon leader's gruff voice. As he stood at attention in the dusty Iraqi desert, waiting for a dressing down, he wondered what he possibly could have done wrong already. Medford had just arrived in Iraq.
With the other guys from his National Army Reserve unit loading the trucks to leave for the day's work, he braced for the verbal lashing military superiors often growl just inches away from a face. Instead, he found his commander's stern expression soften, then ease into a grin. He shook Medford's hand and slid a solid brass coin into it.
Medford, a soldier with the 102nd Field Artillery platoon, had just received his first challenge coin.
The heavy tokens, bestowed by military commanders for years, signify a soldier has earned their respect and a sense of belonging. Once presented, soldiers often carry them on their person from that day forward. "It's a way to show your unit pride," said Medford.
Medford had just arrived back in Iraq after a one-month leave when he got the first coin. He was stationed there from January to December 2005.
Thousands of those keepsakes have passed through his hands since he earned his first in 2005.
Only now, as a professional exonumist, a specialist in currency other than government coins or paper money, he makes sure they get to others who deserve them.
As a representative for Northwest Territorial Mint, Medford, 37, and now living in Concord, works with graphic artists and customers to create a coin exclusive to each organization.
What started as primarily a business to serve the military, challenge coins have branched into other groups who want a unique memento, from police officers and firefighters to sports teams and hobby clubs.
Medford began studying coins after enlisting in the Navy in 1991, intrigued by their differences from port to port as he sailed to more than 25 countries: the birds and flowers stamped on Bermudian coins, and the holes punched through the centers of francs.
He still keeps a coffee can filled with Italian lira and Israeli shekels. "There's not much paper currency. I would spend that," he admits.
Challenge coins are not currency, but are just as valuable to those who own them.
Legends surround when the first ones were created. One myth dates back to World War I, when a wealthy lieutenant had bronze coins made for the men in his air unit.
One pilot is said to have used his to prove U.S. citizenship after being shot down over enemy territory.
They were simpler then. Small, plain, with no colors painted on them like today's challenge coins, which are large, brass, and often hand-painted with high-gloss enamel.
But the tradition of carrying one at all times, ready to slam it on the table when challenged, giving it the name, continues.
Caught without one, and a soldier will buy the first round of drinks.
Medford hasn't been asked to show his for years. "They don't challenge me cause they know I make the coins," he said. "I've always got mine in my wallet."
Most people can safely say they are never going to know an exonumist. Medford counts himself lucky to make a living in such a rare field. "Friends would tell me, 'You can't make money playing with coins,'" he said.
But for Medford, collecting coins has paid off.