By Jim Dresbach, Pentagram Staff WriterOctober 18, 2013
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - For active duty and retired servicemembers, it is the currency of past days of deployment or of military milestones. This custom-made currency is awarded through a discreet handshake following a job well done or in a moment of appreciation.
They are called commander's coins by some and challenge coins by others, and collecting the pieces allow some soldiers the luxury of formulating a pair of collections - the career-long gathering of the actual coins and the assembling of life-long memories.
To former Pentagon Army Sgt. Maj. Jose Velazquez, his 23-year coin accumulation is no small change. While traditional currency experts search for a 1913 liberty head nickel or a 1943 copper penny, commander's coin collectors are fond of the story or stories that accompany coin.
And Velazquez swears he remembers 90 percent of the circumstances following up or during his many coin presentations. He has received copper, pewter and silver recognition from congressmen, vice chiefs of staff and secretaries of the Army, but he will always remember his first coin. Its delivery came after an encounter with the highest-ranking active duty officer in the Army.
"General [Gordon R.] Sullivan was the chief of staff of the Army at the time, and I was stationed in Panama," said Velazquez, who is now a public affairs officer at Fort Eustis, Va. "He came down to visit the troops, and I just happened to walk into the wrong room where he was talking. I was either a specialist or a Pfc. I walked in and kind of interrupted him, and I sat down very quickly. I listened to his talk, and when we were done, he called me over, and he asked me what I did.
"He really spent some time talking to me," he continued. "Here is the chief of staff of the Army, and he spent time talking to me and presented me my very first coin. The very first coin I ever got was from the chief of staff of the Army - that was a very big deal. What mattered most was that I don't know if I got the first coin or the hundredth coin he gave out that day, but he made me feel like that was the only coin he gave out that day."
A signature piece is often given by a senior officer in gratitude for a successful mission, at the conclusion of meetings or functions or just as a morale booster.
The opportunity of working at the Pentagon has afforded Velazquez the chance to assemble a very special subset of coins - mementos from six Sergeants Major of the Army.
"I've been lucky enough to meet and interact with every sergeant major of the Army going back to Sergeant Major of the Army [Richard A.] Kidd," he said. "I've been lucky enough that each one of them presented me a coin. I'm really honored to have those."
Velazquez displays an easy laughter when asked about the size of his congregation of coins. He is sure somewhere inside the Pentagon or between the four walls of a former military officer's den, a larger portfolio of coins has been assembled.
"I know there are people out there who have more coins than I do, but not many," Velazquez said. "I've had great opportunities in the Army. I've been in places where leaders came and went and the Pentagon was one of them, so I had a unique experience where I could interact with many senior leaders."
(This is the first of a multi-week series on commander's coins and those who collect them.)