BANGOR, Maine — Military challenge coins dated back to World War I, given away to soldiers both as a way to build camaraderie within armed service units and then kept as mementos.
Tom Kohl, chairman of the Maine Troop Greeters at Bangor International Airport and a Vietnam War veteran, knows how personally valuable challenge coins are to servicemen and women. That’s why he’s so honored when talking about the 3,600-coin collection on display at the Troop Greeters room inside BIA’s domestic terminal — especially since half of those coins have been donated by soldiers.
“Knowing that a soldier could have kept the coin for himself, the fact that they would rather leave it with us says so much about what we do,” Kohl said Sunday during an open house commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Maine Troop Greeters since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Kohl estimated that about 75 people attended the open house, which ran 1-4 p.m.
The coin collection, which greeters boast rivals any in the country outside of the Pentagon, was the biggest draw for visitors of the open house. The coins line an entire wall of the greeters’ room, displayed in wooden cases covered by glass. Kohl said the group is in the process of inventorying and categorizing the coin collection.
“Now if you want to find one, you might have to look at all of them,” he said.
Jessica Isherwood, who was waiting for a flight, said she knew about the troop greeters but had no idea that the coin collection existed.
“It feels like a museum in here,” she said. “The coins are all so unique.”
The history of the challenge coin is fascinating, Kohl said. An Army pilot during World War I was given a coin by his lieutenant as a memento of service. During his service, the pilot was forced to land his damaged plane behind enemy lines. He was captured by Germans and relieved of all personal items except for the coin, be-cause it was hidden in a small leather pouch around his neck. The pilot later escaped, or so the story goes.
When the pilot attempted to return to his unit, he was detained by U.S. soldiers who thought he was a German spy. He would have been executed if not for the challenge coin that proved his service.
After that incident, Kohl said, challenge coins became a tradition.
The Troop Greeter room, which has a new electronic sign recently donated by the airport, is filled with more than just coins. Military patches, flags and photographs line nearly every inch of the walls.
Earlier this year, the Maine Troop Greeters greeted their one millionth troop at BIA. Their volunteerism has been well-documented, including in a film, “The Way We Get By,” that chronicles the lives of three longtime greeters.
Even on Sunday, Kohl said the greeters had already met two troop flights, and two more were scheduled to come through Bangor that evening.