At the entrance of the CIA's Counterterrorism Mission Center (CTMC, formerly CTC) is a sign that reads, “Every day is September 12, 2001.” While most of the country moved on from the horrific days immediately following September 11th, the men and women of CTMC continue to live this motto, serving quietly in the shadows to prevent another mass casualty event.
One of these men was Gary Schroen, a legendary CIA Case Officer who led the initial Northern Alliance Liaison Team –codenamed JAWBREAKER– into Afghanistan in late 2001. When he returned from that historic assignment, he commemorated the accomplishment by purchasing a two tone Rolex Submariner with a brilliant blue dial. Schroen passed away in August at the age of 80, after a career at the CIA lasting five decades. Schroen’s widow, Anne McFadden, recalls that the Submariner was a constant presence on Schroen’s wrist, and now she keeps the watch on the dresser in her bedroom next to a picture of Schroen as a memento of her late husband.
Rolex Submariner visible during Schroen’s 2005 appearance on NBCs Meet the Press. (Photo credit: NBC)
After the attacks of September 11th 2001, Schroen, then 59 years-old, delayed his retirement to lead the team of CIA officers who were among the first on the ground in Afghanistan. Within 15 days of the attacks, Schroen and six other CIA officers linked up with the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley. The JAWBREAKER team would establish the foundation for the swift defeat of the Taliban and deal a significant blow to al-Qaeda. As publicly documented by CIA, “by early December 2001–in less than three months–the Taliban regime had been overthrown, a significant number of the al-Qa’ida leadership had been killed or captured, and a major terrorist safe haven had been eliminated.” This was made possible by the heroic actions of Schroen and his team, and the decades of work in preparation for that pivotal moment.
Schroen, realizing the historical significance of the operation, documented his experiences in the 2005 book, First In. According to a recent Washington Post article, Schroen also commemorated his successful mission against the Taliban by purchasing a Rolex Submariner. At the time, Schroen reportedly said, “I’ve always wanted a Rolex and I survived Afghanistan and I am buying one.”
And so he did.
Schroen’s widow, Anne McFadden, holding her husband's Rolex Submariner 16613.
(Photo credit: Bill O’Leary, Washington Post)
The watch is a Rolex Submariner 16613, nicknamed the “Bluesy” for the unique sunburst dial. Produced from 1988-2009, the reference showcases a striking blue dial and two-tone “Rolesor” bezel and bracelet. (Rolesor is Rolex’s term for two-tone gold and stainless steel.) The drilled lug holes match the purchase date of the early 2000s as Rolex phased out drilled lugs shortly after.
Despite the Hollywood depiction, even legendary CIA officers are normal people. Like the real estate agent who commemorates his accomplishment as “salesman of the year” with a new watch, CIA officers are no different. In fact, at CIA, there is even an informal name for this, the so-called “war zone watch.” W.O.E. wrote about this in a Hodinkee article, after returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, or one of the undeclared expeditionary locations, many officers take a portion of their savings and purchase a watch to discreetly commemorate the accomplishment.
The Submariner reference 16613 with the blue dial is an interesting choice by Schroen; I've generally viewed this reference as flashier than the subtle black Submariner. Having crossed paths with Gary several times throughout my career, he was a humble guy. He could easily be mistaken for an accountant, small business owner or stay-at-home dad if you met him at a neighborhood bar-b-que. He was not flashy, and this watch appears at odds with his more traditional demeanor and quiet professional ethos. But as true watch connoisseurs know, a watch is (or should be) a deeply personal choice. It is something one buys for oneself and not for others. We can only speculate on his reasons for purchasing that specific reference, but something about the gold and blue dial clearly spoke to Schroen.
This story underscores the notion that seemingly insignificant tools are a part of our identity when we are alive and our legacy when we pass. Sure, It is easy to say, “it's just a watch,” but to McFadden, it’s so much more. Like Todd Beamer’s Rolex found in the rubble of Flight 93, the Submariner is a permanent piece of her husband, a memento she will cherish and a symbol of both his service and the CIA’s response to 9/11.
CIA Medals earned by Gary Schroen. (Photo credit: Bill O’Leary, Washington Post)
In a rare statement by CIA Director William J. Burns, the CIA honored Schroen’s service to the nation, calling him “a legend and inspiration to every Agency officer. . . . Gary embodied the very best of our organization. We will never forget his unwavering dedication, loyalty, and perseverance to protect and defend our country.” In fact, Gary was one of the few officers I am aware of that was able to write a book and still maintain his credibility within the CIA. In our world, that’s a rare occurrence.
Gary, thank you for everything you have done for our nation, you have made your mark on the history of the United States and we are forever in your debt.
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This newsletter has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.
Mi-17 Helicopter Clock, used to insert the initial 7 member CIA Team in Afghanistan. Currently at the CIA museum in Langley, VA.
CIA Museum Poster commemorating Jawbreaker Team.
“Because of the relationship the CIA had developed with the Northern Alliance in the years leading up to the September attacks, the Agency was in a strong position to be first on the ground in Afghanistan. The CIA proposed a plan to send seven highly trained officers into the field to renew relationships with Afghan partners and collect real-time, actionable intelligence. By Sept. 26, 2001, just 15 days after the attacks on U.S. soil, the Northern Alliance Liaison Team-codenamed "JAWBREAKER"-was on the ground and operating in Afghanistan.”