From the outset of organizing the 501st Squad in 1999 into a meaningful structure of units around the world, it was a question of how to best keep the feel of a fictional military unit while creating practical regional chapters. Luckily I had a consultant in my old college buddy Alan Isom, TK820. One of the original troopers there in 1998 at the first Dragon Con meeting, he’s had twenty five years in the National Guard. I asked him, “How do we do this as a tribute to the military without posing as a paramilitary group or insulting the armed services with terminology that mimicked theirs?”
Alan was the perfect person to ask. On top of from his military experience, he and I share a love of military history. So we agreed that anachronistic terms would work and still capture the feel of something a “long time ago.” If the Legion was an Imperial unit occupying earth, as many of our early advertisements hinted, then what would a stationary unit covering a large area be called? Garrison made sense, the Romans stationed Garrisons all over their conquered lands. But what about a small unit in a remote land with only a handful of soldiers? Outpost seemed to fit best. And later, when our membership covered every incarnation of Imperial several times over, I thought it best to organize similar costumes into themed groups. Well, Alan pointed out, any specialized group sent on a mission could be called a Detachment.
All of this has led to a quasi-military culture in the Legion that has been fun, tongue-in-cheek, and apparently a big hit with current and former service members from all over the world. Not only does it capture the feel of an Imperial army, which was the original point, but it lends structure. And along with military culture come some interesting traditions.
The military challenge coin was not something with which I was familiar before the Legion. The basic rule of a challenge coin is to carry the coin of your military unit with you at all times. If you’re out drinking with another service member and the topic of your unit comes up, then it’s customary to throw down your coin. If the other person can’t reciprocate and produce their coin, then he or she fails the challenge and buys the drinks. Simple.
According to Scott Will, TK408 and Branding Officer for the Legion, the 501st challenge coins were first introduced in September 2005 by Florida Garrison member Mike Lee. Mike is an Army helicopter pilot so he was very familiar with the challenge coin tradition in the military. As far as he can tell, the first garrison coin was made by the Midwest Garrison. It was simple and elegant and represented the pride of the MWG troopers. Before long the flood gates opened.
So the very pride I’d hoped would grow in the Legion’s units became the fuel for creating coins to boast of their membership. Soon the sound of coins being slapped down in challenge could be heard at every convention. From this tradition a lot of fun stories have taken place and they are some of my favorite accounts from around the Legion.
Steve Welnicke, RC10136, was given a coin by a Garrison mate, goading him into finishing his Republic Commando armor to qualify for the RC detachment. It worked: Steve put in the work and got into the detachment, as well as the Ice Squad in Wisconsin and even earned dual membership in the Rebel Legion!
The coin’s symbol of membership is a strong message, and appeals to non-members who can see the benefit of such fraternity. Jamie Tobitt, TI-67076, told me, “I went to the San Diego Squad’s Holiday Party not yet sure if I wanted to join. During the evening of meeting and chatting to the members about their costumes. Dean Amstutz, TK-2643, coined me with a garrison coin. Seeing that coin in my hand set the hook in me and that was all she wrote.”
At conventions it gets particularly intense. Zac Birrer, DZ2613, says always carry at leasttwo coins on him at all times. “My friend Joe and I were at our local con talking about coins and Joe is talking up his collection. Of course, I just had to drop my KTB on the table. Everyone starts laughing, digging in their pockets or groaning. I look at Joe and he has a look of panic on his face. I had to quickly slip him one under the table. In his rush to get out of armor and kilt up for drinks he had left them in his room.” At a Celebration 501st mixer challenge coins appear everywhere in rapid succession. Romain Ruth reported getting ambushed while in the bath room. Alas, he was finally caught without his coin.
Coins have very personal meaning, too. Trooper D’on Lane Noakes, TI 31073, shared the story of one coin. “This is my favorite coin. It originally belonged to my friend and fellow Bast Alpha Garrison brother Scott Smith, who passed away back in October. I keep it in my wallet.”
Coins don’t always fit the standard mold. The New England Garrison works so closely with their Rebel Legion unit that their coin has the Alderaan Base logo on the other side. Now that’s dedication to teamwork! The Ghetto Garrison, a group of Garrison Tyrannus members in Virginia, moonlights in low-grade costumes for fun outside of the Legion. Legion Archivist Cheralyn Lambeth, TB 976, suggested they have their own challenge coin, and offered Mark Cabacungan, TI 091, metal washers that said ‘ghetto garrison’ in sharpie. Shabby chic!
Celebrities have gotten into the act too. Among our esteemed Honorary Members is Seth Green, who goes crazy at Celebration events collecting 501st swag. During the Clone Wars premiere some of our SoCal Clone Troopers showed up and were surprised when Seth whipped out his 501st coin. Coined while on duty! But Kit Sovine reports “I coin checked Seth Green (who said after we gave him one for his HM, he’d always have it on him) at the 30th anniversary screening for Return of the Jedi. Guess what? He didn’t have it. Revenge of the Coin!
This story wouldn’t be complete without my own tale. I’ve been coined hundreds of times in 18 years, and only failed three times. Marching in the 2007 Rose Bowl Parade with 200 troopers from around the world, I knew I had a target on my back. So I made sure to tape my coin inside the drop-box on the side of my armor. You just never know! But at Celebration VI in Orlando I was at a 501st party when Dean Plantamura, TK899, led the Legion documentary film crew over to see if I was on my toes. Having dressed down after a dip in the pool, I was caught completely off guard. The crew had a good time ramping up the drama in a great film clip to capture the moment. Visit the link below to see if I made it on time!
Do I make it in time? See for yourself.
There are so many coins it would be impossible to list all the stories here. Perhaps we will visit “Tales of the Coin Challenges” again one day. In the meantime, remember: May the Coin be with you (or you’re buying)!
Albin Johnson was a lowly stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion “Vader’s Fist”. He’s also man-servant to R2-KT “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold.” You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.