By Douglas Stutz
Naval Hospital Bremerton
BREMERTON, Wash., July 15, 2015 – Some coins are simply worth more than money. Their face value is measured not in monetary worth, but with professional significance, personal sentiment and, at times, even historical relevance.
For Navy Lt. Cmdr. Carmelo Ayala, chief of the Naval Hospital Bremerton internal medicine department, the best example he can readily share is to reach into a uniform pocket and proudly display the commemorative coin of the 25th chief of naval operations, Navy Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda.
To Ayala, the coin’s worth lies in the fact that Boorda was the first sailor to rise up through the enlisted and officer ranks to become the Navy’s top officer. Ayala also started out as an enlisted sailor and has found his niche in the Navy Nurse Corps in his 28 years of naval service.
“I just love getting and also giving coins. I have received a few over the years from mentors, hospital corpsmen, [independent duty corpsmen], Navy Nurse Corps officers and others,” the Camden, New Jersey, native said. “I am a firm believer that a coin is just a great way to say, ‘Thank you’ to someone for going that extra mile to help out.”
A Growing Collection
Ayala said his coin collection has grown to more than 3,000. “I haven’t actually counted them in a while,” he added. “I get coins all the time from friends, co-workers and beneficiaries from everywhere. Just this week, there’s 13 new ones.”
That baker’s dozen of new coins also includes a special addition that came about by happenstance, the nurse said. On the way up to his department, Ayala said, he struck up a conversation with a man on the elevator and they exchanged small talk about their military service.
“The gentleman shared that he had been in some wrong places at the wrong times, because at some of those places, people didn’t return,” Ayala said. The man said that the care and concern Ayala showed him was very much appreciated, and he presented a very distinctive coin as a thank you.
The coin came from Vietnam War veteran Army Lt. Col. Bruce P. Crandall, who received the Medal of Honor in 2007 for his heroic actions during the Battle of Ia Drang while assigned to Alpha Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division. During the battle, Crandall and his wingman landed numerous times to evacuate more than 70 soldiers after other helicopters refused to land on the hot landing zone.
“[It] just goes to show you that if you treat others the way you want to be treated that they will appreciate it,” Ayala said. “What an honor! How often does one get a coin from a Medal of Honor recipient? The least I could do is return the favor and give him one of mine,” he said.
The origin of the military or challenge coin goes back to the days of the early Roman Empire. Militaries throughout history have presented a token with the unit’s logo or insignia on it to someone deemed worthy by a special achievement on their part. The practice also now includes exchanging coins during exercises, collaborations and assignments.
Yufeng Miller of Naval Hospital Bremerton’s internal medicine department said she had witnessed active-duty personnel receive coins, but never thought that she would receive one until Ayala presented his coin to her last month.
“I never thought that I’d get one. It’s great. It makes me feel more appreciated in our department,” Miller said. “I now have a few more, and I even have a little display that was made for me on my work desk.”
Ayala attests that the best thing about any coin, for both the recipient and the presenter, is that the simple gesture is a morale builder and is all about service. “If you tell someone you got their back, they will remember that,” the nurse said. “Whether it’s helping with paperwork, getting an appointment, conducting a diagnosis, whatever the case may be, people can tell when someone cares. As a part of Navy Medicine, and as a Navy Nurse Corps officer, I’m in the caring business. It’s what I do. It’s what we do.”
A coin also has power, Ayala said. A coin can spark motivation along with boosting morale. “It’s a small gesture, but it goes a long ways. The only thing better than getting a coin is giving one,” Ayala said. The most recent coin that Ayala presented was to Navy Seaman Josephine Fabia, a personnel specialist in the hospital’s human resources department, for her work in expediting paperwork for Ayala and his wife, Michele. He was anticipating that it would take several days to complete the necessary administrative requirements, he said. But 20 minutes later, Fabia contacted him to say his documents were ready.
“That service was so professionally prompt and courteous that I immediately tracked her down to say ‘thank you’ and present her with a coin,” he said. For Fabia, it was her first coin.
“It was awesome to receive my first! I keep it in my car. It’s good luck,” she said.
A Personal Design
Ayala’s self-designed coin has embossed raised lettering around the edges on one side that reads, “I did it the hard way, I earned it,” and “The price of greatness is integrity.” The middle portion revolves on two hinges, with one side showcasing the Navy Nurse Corps emblem surrounded by the words, ‘Nursing Excellence Up Through the Ranks.’
The flip side of the middle features a mustang horse -- “mustang” being an informal term for commissioned officers who began their careers in the enlisted ranks -- along with the caduceus, the symbol of Navy hospital corpsmen.
Ayala, who started his Navy career as an undesignated seaman assigned to fleet oiler USS Cimarron from 1987 to 1990, said one coin has so far eluded him: one from the USS Cimarron. He had the opportunity, he said, but as a young sailor he could not justify the reasoning to purchase the coin from the ship’s store at the time.
“I remember back then thinking, ‘Why would anyone want to buy this little piece of brass?’ But, as I’ve gotten older, I realize that there is such a connection to history and camaraderie,” he said. “For the past 20 years I’ve been trying to locate one. But what’s really cool is someone, and I don’t know who, made this wood carving replica of the Cimarron coin for me. No one is taking credit for it, and it’s great.”
Just as Ayala has been persistent in collecting coins, his career has also been a study in perseverance. After high school, he wanted to get into the state’s licensed practical nursing school, but due to fiscal uncertainty in the program, he decided to join the Navy and set his sights on becoming a corpsman.
On the Cimarron, he logged hours under instruction in the ship’s small medical bay, he said. Then a freak accident while conducting preventive maintenance resulted in a transfer to a base clinic. Fate intervened, as his skill was noted by an admiral who helped get him selected for corpsman school, where he excelled. After reaching the rank of senior chief hospital corpsman, Ayala decided to continue his Navy service in the Nurse Corps.
“Although nursing was my original goal, the main reason why I went the commissioning program was to be able to better provide for Michele,” he said. “The added schooling and training has increased my knowledge and allowed me to be better able to care for her and care for my patients.”
As his career winds down, Ayala said, he believes he has made an impact not only in the field of medicine, but also as a caring coin giver and receiver, which, in some ways, is just as priceless.