FORT LEE, Va. (April 28, 2011) -- A look around Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Ashley's office and one might conclude it's typical for a senior noncom: photographs, awards and other mementos adorn almost every inch of wall and desk space in his Tactical Support Equipment Department office located on the Ordnance Campus.
None of the mementos, however, are more endearing to him than a set of about nine coins sitting in a small display within arm's reach of his sitting position. They are commander's coins (sometimes called challenge coins), and Ashley has more than 160 of them that he has collected over the years.
"They bring back memories," said the native Jamaican, "memories of my career - people and the camaraderie that I had in a company or battalion. Camaraderie is the biggest thing."
A number of sources indicate that commander's coins go back to World War I when a wealthy Army Air Corps pilot presented gold-plated coins bearing the unit insignia to fellow pilots.
Over the years and through the various wars and conflicts, coin presentations have evolved. They are presented to military personnel by commanding officers and other leaders as a pat-on-the-back for work well done, for important career milestones (the Air Force presents coins to basic training graduates) and other achievements.
Ashley said he doesn't show off his coins in an "I love me" kind of way that quantifies his achievements. He said he displays them because there is a story behind each of them that he likes to recount.
"The ones I have at home, I look at them about once a month," he said, "but the ones I have here in the office, I look at them every day."
Ashley said he gains strength from the achievements that each coin represents.
"They energize me," he said. "As a leader you have to be positive, no matter what the situation. You have to bring that energy to work every day, so sometimes looking at the coins, you think of the things you went through. You reflect and you say, ‘Today is not bad at all.'"
One coin on display is a grim reminder of that notion. It's from the 509th Infantry Battalion that he was assigned to in Iraq a few years ago.
"This was my first company as a first sergeant," he said. "I actually built this company from scratch - five Soldiers to a total of about 97 and deployed them."
The unit was assigned to Fallujah, Iraq and endured a tragic tour of duty.
"The brigade that we belonged to lost more than 53 Soldiers," he said. "Knock on wood, I didn't lose any of the Soldiers from my company, but the maneuver battalion that we directly supported lost most of those 53 Soldiers."
The 509th coin is a bittersweet one. It represents achievement, yet it serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made in pursuit to that end. Ashley said although he enjoys coin collecting as a hobby, he earned most of the coins he possesses and collects them with the understanding that the traditions should be upheld.
"Coins are not something you just give away," he said, noting he is quick to point out coins that were awarded to him and those he collected. "A coin is used to reward a Soldier. Many coins even have the words ‘for excellence' on them. Sometimes instead of giving them a certificate of achievement or something like that, you can give them a coin. It's a great pat on the back."
Maj. Gen. James L. Hodge, commanding general, Combined Arms Support Command, and Brig. Gen. Jesse R. Cross, former Quartermaster General, recently presented Ashley with coins for his work on the Fort Lee Army 10-Miler Team. Ashley said that because he is a senior NCO, he is not awarded coins as frequently as Soldiers with lower ranks. Nevertheless, he said he will continue to collect as many coins as he can and has at least one almost bottomless resource - Class 60 of the U.S. Army Sergeant Majors Academy of which he is a recent graduate.
"I can always reach out to the 600 comrades who graduated with me," he said. "I can say, ‘Hey, I'm making my new coin, do you want to see what mine look like?' And in the process of doing that, I'm sure they're going to send me one of theirs. That's a lot of coins."
Ashley has plans to design and distribute his coin in the very near future.