Local sailor designs Navy challenge coin, wins junior sailor of the year


Jan. 4, 2011 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 3, 2011 at 7:04 p.m.

Daniel Lopez Jr. scribbled out a Navy-themed coin design on a sheet of paper with the faint hope it would be commissioned by an admiral.

There was only one problem.

"I'm about as worthless at drawing as my 2-year-old son," he said.

Lopez, a 27-year-old Navy telecommunications technician and Victoria native, used his technical know-how instead.

The task was to redesign a Navy challenge coin for the highest ranking officer in his command, Adm. Craig S. Faller, the head of the Navy Recruiting Command, during a three-month contest.

The coin, an insignia of power and recognition, is given from a higher-ranking officer or enlisted person to deserving sailors.

"That coin carries the weight of whoever gave it to you," said Daniel Lopez Sr., a retired Air Force sergeant who's received two coins in his 26-year service.

Those who have them belong to prestigious circles, have friends in high places or can cash them in for favors.

"If you were at a bar with other military people, they would challenge you to put your coin down, and the person who had the lowest ranking coin: You'd buy a round for everybody," said Leading Chief Petty Officer Jose L. Cruz, about a legend surrounding the coin.

Cruz also supervises Lopez and owns several coins.

Lopez dove into Photoshop for many sleepless nights and weekends, tweaked and reprinted the design taking advice from everyone along the way.

"There was plenty of nights - trying to work on it - when my wife was asleep and my kids were asleep, and I was on the computer," he said.

In the meantime he was vying for another prestigious recognition: 2010 Junior Sailor of the Year.

Lopez, a father of three, works full time at the Navy recruiting command in Millington, Tenn., installing and repairing phones for hundreds of people; he takes online classes; and he volunteers and mentors at-risk teenagers.

In the last three years, he's worked more than 1,000 volunteer hours.

"Anything that I can do that doesn't take up too much time away from my family," he said.

His ability to help also comes without warning. Heavy rains in May that caused flooding in Nashville also flooded his base, and Lopez quickly organized his home as a shelter for friends.

"I ended up having six people stay at my house and volunteered to help with everything else," he said.

It's a response typical of Lopez, who's always been known to go beyond his call of duty.

"He always goes the extra mile, and I think that's what sets him apart from a lot of people," said Cruz, who nominated Lopez for the award. "He's not just content with getting the job done."

Lopez, a trained fire controlman, had three deployments in his 10 years in the service - the Persian Gulf, Singapore and to the Colombian coast where his ship seized seven tons of liquid cocaine.

After multiple reviews, Lopez. learned he won the Junior Sailor of the Year award.

News about his winning coin design came shortly after.

"I wanted to do it," he said. "So that way for the rest of somebody's life, they'll have that coin and it will last way longer than I ever will."

The coin features the Navy's new slogan, "Global Force for Good" and logo. Lopez was presented one of the first coins to be minted and gave his parents a copy. His father said he plans to keep it in the family living room, next to the American flag he received when he retired.

Accomplishments aside, Lopez said he makes his family his priority.

Locally, perhaps many might recognize him for a recent Pancho Claus decoration he had created for his father last year. The sign, originally a Latino Christmastime display on his father's Air Force base, was replaced with a colorful replica after 20 years of display.

"With the support of my wife and three kids," he said. "That's what allows me to get everything done and helps motivate me."



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