Virginia Beach, Va. -- For many servicemembers, transferring from a command means packing up a box or two with family photos and some knick-knacks that once sat on a desk, but for Lt. Carmelo Ayala, who transferred from Branch Health Clinic Oceana on Feb. 13, it meant packing up more than 1,800 military coins.
Ayala, the former head of the Primary Care Clinic at the branch health clinic, began collecting military coins more than 25 years ago, accumulating them over the years and keeping them on display in his office.
His main display rack holds at least 1,300 coins, his secondary about 300. Several smaller racks he kept on his desk hold between 20 and 50. Although he hasn't counted them in a while, he estimates there are at least 1,800 in the collection - a number that grows by the day.
"I really appreciate it when someone gives me a coin," Ayala said. "It means a lot to me, so I try to do something nice to them in return. Sometimes I have helped them with something already, like putting in an officer package, and this is their way of thanking me."
For Ayala, the coins are more than a piece of metal.
"It's a memory," he said as he stood on a stool, stretching up to scan through some of the coins displayed on the overhead compartment of his desk. "Memories. I have to go back and think about it, but I can tell the story of how I got each one."
He definitely remembers the first one, his only wooden coin in the collection. Ayala had joined the Navy in 1985 as a deck seaman, later becoming a hospital corpsman and joining the Nurse Corps. He received that first coin in 1987 while stationed on USS Cimarron (AO 177), a now-decommissioned oiler.
"It was a basic coin for Sailor of the Month," Ayala said. "I was supposed to turn it in to get special liberty. I didn't need special liberty, so I kept the coin. My second was in 1988 for Shellback initiation. I had collected coins as a child, but I realized this was another level because of the intricate level of detail. I always liked coins, but the cool part is these are all different."
There's a range of sizes within the collection, from as small as a quarter up to just fitting in the palm of the hand. There seem to be no limits to the designs. Some are holographic, contain photographs or have intricate custom cuts. The cuts include a scorpion, spider, syringe, domino, paw print, ship's wheel, throwing star and deck of cards. Many have a spinner in which the middle part is cut to spin within the frame of the coin. Some are hand-painted and made with different colors and brush techniques.
Ayala looks for any opportunity to add to his collection, and with the word out about the collection, many are always looking for coins to give him, from family and friends to co-workers and patients.
"I think they believe I work for food and coins," Ayala joked.
He estimates about 70 percent of the coins were presented to him by the person the coin was made for or by a member of the command the coin represents. The other 30 percent come from those who run across coins they think he would like.
Occasionally, he has purchased coins to add to the collection.
Ayala has his own coin to hand out, and he usually "regifts" duplicates. Only once did he give up a coin he had only one of.
"A fellow officer had a coin stolen from his stateroom while he was on deployment," Ayala said. "That was the only coin he had gotten in 20 plus years of service. It was from Adm. Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When I heard about it, I walked right up to him and gave him my only Mullen coin.
"'Someone stole your memory, and I wanted to return it,'" Ayala told him as he presented the coin. "To some people, it's a big deal, especially if you care about the person who gave it to you."
And plenty of people have cared enough to present them to Ayala.
"I have coins from all branches of service, from ships and from squadrons," Ayala said. "I even have several master chief petty officers of the Navy - the third, ninth and 10th. About two percent of the collection is non-military. Some of the coins I've been given are commemorative coins for movies, like Harry Potter, Act of Valor and Hunger Games, or for businesses like Home Depot and Office Depot."
One of Ayala's favorite coins is from U.S. Army Europe because of the large size and intricate detail. But his most treasured coin is one he always carries with him.
"My most treasured is Adm. Boorda's coin, especially because it was his Seaman-to-Admiral program that allowed me to become an officer," Ayala said. "The coin was given to me by the son of one of Boorda's former aides. The son had been an intern in the Flight Medicine Clinic.
"One day, he said, 'I have something special for you. My father said you would really treasure and love it.' He was right," Ayala said. "It's the only one I carry with me, along with my own. Not much can beat that. So when someone challenges me, I can say 'What do ya got? You're going to lose.'"
Ayala sometimes carries the presidential or Camp David coins, but believes it's the Boorda coin that brings him good luck.
With so much experience with coins, he has designed several, including his own. His most recent project is updating his coin for his promoted to lieutenant commander on May 1. He has also designed coins for officers in charge, the chief's mess and the wardroom of the Oceana BHC.
With the collection continuing to grow, Ayala is looking forward to using a new display case. Fellow avid collector and wood worker, retired Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) Michael Gilberg, made three of the display cases Ayala had in his office.
Gilberg recently presented Ayala with a new case for the collection, a six-foot unit that breaks into two sections. Ayala will use it to house the entire collection when he reports to Naval Hospital Bremerton, Wash., in March.
Despite all of the coins Ayala has attained over the years, he does have one regret - he never got a coin from the ship where it all began.
"I should have gotten a ship's coin from Cimarron and still have not gotten it," he added. "I have been trying for many years. That's my first ship, but it's impossible to find them with the ship being decommissioned. I learned a lesson early.
"Now I tell younger folks that it's your command, it's a memory, so try to get one and keep it," he said. "It means a lot to be able to cherish it and remember who gave it to you."