Challenge coin display at Chez Veterans Center made by F&S mill shop

Chez coin display: “Breathtaking” work by mill

The Chez Veterans Center (CVC) is a special place for special people, home to student military veterans at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. There, Veterans can meet and visit with others, including those who live in the facility. The staff, and the facility itself, help make life easier, including for those with disabilities from their service.

The F&S mill shop recently made something for CVC, an item that will live on for years to come: a wood frame that holds military ‘challenge coins.’

Garrett Anderson, retired U.S. Army Sgt. and outreach coordinator and student recruiter at CVC, knew the mill shop would produce a quality product. Anderson collaborated with mill shop foreperson Andy Burnett.

“I was taken away. When Andy came to us and we sketched it out and talked about what he was going to do, I was thinking, ‘this is going to be nice,'” Anderson said. “But when they actually delivered the product, this thing was the best ever. It’s amazing. It’s better than anything you can get anywhere. The precision – it was just breathtaking, really. Just a beautiful piece.”

What is it for?

‘Challenge coins’ are small medallions gifted to deserving people or institutions – in this case, to honor the work done by CVC employees and Illinois military veterans.

[Challenge coins have] been an American military tradition for a century, meant to instill unit pride, improve esprit de corps and reward hard work and excellence.

The coins represent anything from a small unit to the offices of top leaders, such as the defense secretary. There are also coins made for special events, anniversaries and even nonmilitary leaders.

Many service members and veterans proudly display challenge coins at their desks or homes, showing off the many missions they’ve been on, the top leaders they’ve met and the units for which they’ve worked.

U.S. Department of Defense

The collection currently includes coins from United States Senator Tammy Duckworth, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Illinois state president, and other universities.

“It’s a way to show respect to other service members,” Anderson said. “We can just keep collecting more and more.”

Three different woods were used in the construction by mill worker Alex Merkle, according to Burnett: cherry, white hard maple, and walnut. Cherry and white hard maple woods were used for the stripes of the flag, with walnut used for the star background. The white hard maple was also used for the stars, which were cut out by a laser engraver. 

“Garrett had an idea for the display and sent a couple photos of ideas, and we ran with it to design the finished product,” said Burnett.


In 2020, F&S employees were gifted a challenge coin by the Illinois Army ROTC for completing work done on their training area during the COVID-19 pandemic.

F&S painters and facilities information resources (FIR) assisted the needs of the University of Illinois Army ROTC by painting socially distanced circles in Lot 31, a grassy area used for cadet physical training just west of Memorial Stadium. On behalf of Lieutenant Colonel Dan Johnson, Professor of Military Science, Master Sergeant Timothy Collier and Major Jennifer Soderlind presented the Fighting Illini Battalion Commander’s Coin to F&S leaders in recognition of this effort.

“We appreciate all the military does for this country and what our own ROTC folks do for us on campus,” said Jim Sims, director of Engineering & Construction Services. “We were thrilled to assist and hold our relationship with all branches of the military with high esteem.”

Painters expertly marked out 140 circles and 10 running lanes to ensure health and safety for more than 100 student cadets thanks in part to Real Time Kinematic (RTK) Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment that was used to identify the precise locations of the circles.

F&S INSIDER Magazine, 2020