Most higher education institutions like to consider themselves “veteran –friendly,” but this seldom extends beyond the creation of a local veterans affairs office and the promise to accept GI Bill funds. Veterans certainly appreciate such accommodations, but Green River College distinguishes itself through the exceptional support it provides such students, faculty and staff.
On Wednesday, May 19th, Green River held its 7th Annual Challenge Coin Ceremony. Auburn City Mayor and navy veteran Pete Lewis, President Ely, Vice President of Student Affairs Deb Casey and the new Dean of Student Success and Retention and army veteran Timm Lovitt were among the many staff members who attended the ceremony in support of Green River’s veteran community. The speakers included VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post 1741 Commander Frank Bannister. Dr. Ely and Dr. Casey also spoke, thanking the veterans for their service and proudly relating to the audience the substantial military history in both their families.
The Challenge Coin tradition is essentially this: a soldier or veteran presents a challenge coin to another, who must then present their own coin or be obliged to buy a round of drinks for their colleague. Dr. Casey shared a possible World War I origin of this tradition, in which suspicious French soldiers nearly killed an American pilot evading German captors. The sole piece of identification on the pilot was a coin bearing his squadron’s insignia, which the French fortunately recognized and offered him a bottle of wine in lieu of execution.
However, it should be clear that soldiers and veterans don’t purchase and collect these coins like baseball cards. This isn’t a version of “collect ‘em all.” Rather, challenge coins are gifts from close friends and commanders and have faces, names and stories associated with them. These small tokens prompt questions like, “What unit were you in?” or “Where did you serve?” and are usually followed by the inevitable, “Did you know a guy named…?” They offer a means to connect with a fellow veteran and to speak proudly about their service and the unit engraved on each coin. They reinforce a sense of identity, pride and camaraderie.
I have heard people mention the difficulty of the transition process for veterans leaving the military. They tend to characterize any problems as an inability to adapt to non-military norms and rules. From my own experience, I believe the problem lies more with the feeling of loss and emptiness that comes with abandoning a military life and the service and esprit de corps that define it.
Through the exemplary work of Timm Lovitt, the administration is able to fill a bit of that void with this simple yet powerful ceremony. The college tells veterans that they belong and will have a home here as part of the Green River family.