Reconnecting in Texas: Challenge Coin Standoff

Retired Air Force veteran Randall Cuthbert wasn't expecting to reunite with an old friend from Desert Shield in Texas.

In 1990, I served in Desert Shield. As military folks do, we created a coin to commemorate our unit and our service. The location was Masirah Oman, which we affectionately called Moon Island. The Commander was Colonel (later 2-star General) C.J. Wax. When Desert Storm was over, we all left to the respective bases from which we came with a coin. Note: the tradition is that if you challenge a fellow coin holder to prove that he/she is carrying the coin and they can’t produce it, then they owe you a drink—and the converse is true as well.

Three years later, now-1-star General C.J. Wax and I were both stationed at Scott Air Force base in Illinois. We ran in different circles, so I never saw him; but on the occasion of my selection for promotion to major, the base threw a huge party for the selectees, and I knew he would be there. I brought my coin. When I found General Wax, I palmed the coin and went over to say hi. I knew he would want to congratulate me and shake my hand, and that’s what happened.

He started to make congratulation noises, but once he felt the coin in his palm, his eyes went really wide. He took the coin away from me and without looking at it, held it behind his back. At the same time, he pulled out his wallet and started fishing through it—still without looking—until he found what he was looking for. He then waved both coins in my face and said, “Is this what you were looking for? Because I am never without that coin.”

Twenty-seven years after Desert Shield, Hurricane Harvey slams into Rockport, TX. I’m thumbing through news articles, and damned if I didn’t find out that my former Commander, C.J. Wax, is now Mayor of Rockport. I’m now a volunteer with Team Rubicon—an organization of mostly veterans who continue to serve through disaster response. I volunteered for the Hurricane Harvey response, and on the off-chance that I might get sent to Rockport and the off-chance I might meet the mayor, I threw the 1990 Desert Shield coin in my pocket.

It happened. My Team Rubicon incident commander, Chris, arranged for me to come to an Emergency Operations Center meeting attended by the Mayor, and we set the perfect ambush. I stood behind Chris, who shook the Mayor’s hand and said, “There’s someone here who’d like to meet you”—and I palmed the coin again and stepped out and took his hand. His eyes got wide again when he felt the coin and saw the name on my shirt, and then there were lots of hugs and a few tears (mostly on my part).

So did he have the coin? Well, he just smiled and reached into his pocket. I said: “NO! NO! You CAN’T be carrying that coin after 27 years!” He just smiled more, and said, “Wait for it. Wait for it.”

No, he didn’t have the coin. But now I have two coins. One reads “Desert Shield; Moon Island.” The other, “City of Rockport Texas; Mayor C.J. Wax.”

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