“Happy birthday,” Ed said, dropping an enameled gold medallion into my husband Bill’s hand.
On one side were the words “Combating Terrorism.” A ferocious eagle with talons outstretched for prey was poised above the word “terrorism.” On the reverse side, the words “Department of Defense, United States of America” were engraved.
“It’s our office coin,” Ed said. Ed, an old friend and an Army colonel, works in the Pentagon, a member of the Special Operations/Combating Terrorism team.
“Your coin?” Bill asked, studying the red and white stripes behind the eagle, the gold stars on a field of blue.
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“Yeah, it started in the military. It’s a token of the unit a soldier belongs to, a symbol of their pride and loyalty to each other. Their common purpose.
“A soldier can step into a tavern anywhere near a military base, slap his coin down onto the bar, and call out, ‘Coin check!’ The soldier who doesn’t care enough about his unit to carry a coin has to buy the drinks. If everyone has a coin, the challenger must buy the drinks. For the insult.”
The head of the Special Operations/Combating Terrorism team had commissioned Ed to design a coin for their office. “I worked on that thing for six months, e-mailing ideas back and forth to the manufacturer,” Ed said. Finally, everyone had agreed on a design and the company had sent Ed a sample coin for final approval.
On September 7, 2001, Ed laid the coin on his desk at the Pentagon and left for a weeklong vacation in Maine.
Four days later, terrorists plowed a passenger jet through the three outer rings of the Pentagon — E, D, and C. Ed’s office is in the B ring. “A hundred and fifty feet more and the nose of that plane would have been on my desk,” Ed said.
The force of the impact ravaged his office — sagged the ceiling, emptied his desk, flung files and computers to the floor — and coated everything with a stinking jet-fuel grime.
The coin was lost, or so Ed thought. But as he knelt, sifting through the debris, he found it. “I ordered 500 of those things immediately,” he said.
I studied the silver dollar-sized coin, weighed its heaviness in my hand, ran my thumb over the smooth enamel of the flag. Ed had labored over this emblem even as the terrorists finalized their plans, had turned the sample over in his hands, a hint of satisfaction in the expression around his eyes, even as the terrorists prepared to buy their plane tickets.
When he headed off for Maine, he thought everything would be just as he left it when he returned.
The pride Ed takes in his unit’s coin is not untested bravado, but tempered confidence. Maybe he remembers uncovering the sample coin on the floor of his damaged office, how, when he wiped it off, grime still clung to the eagle’s talons.
But the coin proved indestructible. It lay — scarred perhaps, but still whole — waiting to be redeemed from the rubble.
Ed keeps that first coin in a safe place. Perhaps it has become less a symbol of his unit and more a badge of stubborn survival, and of the unshakable human conviction that personal liberty is a God-given right.
The enemies of that cherished ideal challenged us to a coin check on a September morning in 2001. We Americans dug deep into our collective pocket, drew out our coin, and placed it deliberately on the table.
They’re buying the drinks now. For the insult.
Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Savannah.