Special Agent Mel Harrison served in the US State Department for twenty-eight years, mostly as a Regional Security Officer in the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). The role of a DSS Agent overseas is to advise the U.S. Ambassador on all security matters and to protect U.S. personnel, facilities, and information. One common theme throughout Mel’s career was the presence of a situationally correct timepiece on his wrist.
The relationship between Diplomatic Security's Regional Security Officer (RSO) and the CIA Station is vital to keeping Americans safe abroad. The RSO has the benefit of the US Marines and contract guard force under his command, but with vital intelligence assessments from the CIA Chief of Station, the RSO is able to assess the severity of the threat and can credibly request specific host government assets to protect the Embassy and its personnel congruent to the threat level.
Mel at Handy Side Gate, Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan wearing Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date 1500, circa 1988
Watches of Diplomatic Security
When I joined the old Office of Security in 1971, watches held no fascination for me. Serving in Saigon and Quito from 1973-76, I owned an ordinary and inexpensive Seiko, and later added my first automatic Seiko Diver’s watch with both day and date. My watch addiction began to grow when I returned for a DC assignment and purchased a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date 1500 and a Hamilton manual-wind military-style watch. The Rolex served me well in the office, and the Seiko and Hamilton were perfect while assigned to VIP protective details where punctuality was vital, and events might get rough and tumble.
I was satisfied with this trio until assigned to the NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy in 1982. I noticed a Canadian Air Force pilot and fellow student who wore a wristwatch with luminescent hands and indices, but there was no brand name on the dial. The watch was issued to him by the Canadian government and it was the first time I became aware of military issued watches. My onward assignment was to London, where I discovered a large number of books on historical military watches, and antique markets filled with actual service watches.
In my view, above all else, watches are tools. Whether one values accuracy, toughness, functionality, dependability, or just plain looks, the choices should match the needs of the job, the work environment, and do so without breaking the bank. Before arriving for a three year assignment in Islamabad, Pakistan in 1987, I added an Omega Speedmaster to my small collection. It was amazingly accurate and legible. But without a date function, I wore it somewhat less than I would have liked. I eventually sold it in London.
Mel in Darra Adam Khel weapons bazar, Pakistan circa 1988.
My Seiko divers watch on a rubber strap became my favorite in Pakistan. I was wearing it in February 1989 when a mob of 8,000 rioters attacked the American Center in Islamabad, where I was leading a small staff in its defense. The police tried their best to keep the rioters out of the Cultural Center, but they were overwhelmed and we were forced to do some hand-to-hand fighting to keep the mob from coming through the broken windows.
US Embassy attack Islamabad, 1979
The toughness and dependability of a watch are important for me, whether protecting visiting congressional VIPs in the Northwest Frontier province in Pakistan, or running twice weekly drills with the Embassy Marines, which can get physical, depending on the type of drill. The job of a Regional Security Officer is to prepare the embassy to handle mob violence, terrorist attacks and bombings, among other duties. It’s fair to say these are “come as you are parties.” No RSO can call a timeout while they change their dress watch to a more rugged model. You go with what you are wearing.
Years later from 1996-99, I was assigned for the second time to London, this time as the senior Regional Security Officer. From the US Navy PX in London, I bought a rugged and gorgeous Rolex Submariner, which I wore on and off for the next twenty years. However, during that time I took several vacation trips to India, Kenya, and other third world places. There was no way I would wear my valuable Submariner and risk being robbed. Because I had sold my original Seiko diver’s watch a few years before, I bought a new one (model SKX031K2) with the day and date, and wore it when I traveled. I still have it today.
I liked to explore the London antique markets looking at classic old watches. One day, with the dollar to British pound exchange rate reasonably strong in my favor, I purchased a handsome mid-1960s Omega Seamaster with date from the Grays Antique market. Because of the era in which it was manufactured, it was more a dress watch than the modern rugged model. I’ve had it serviced once and still frequently wear it.
I mentioned earlier that watches should blend in with the needs of the job and the environment. During my London tour, I noticed that my contacts in Scotland Yard, whether they were senior officers or patrolmen, usually wore “non-macho man” watches. The same applied to officials in the Foreign Office and Home Office. Their culture meant most wore plain no-fuss watches on leather straps, and definitely avoided large, bulky watches. After-all, who needs a dive watch in central London? So, despite owning several military related watches, I adapted by often wearing either my original Rolex 1500 on a black leather strap or the old Omega Seamaster, also on a black leather strap. I felt it more important for my contacts to focus on what I was saying than to stare at my watch.
With my watch addiction still not satiated, I obtained two British military watches. The first was the CWC diver’s watch used by the Royal Marines and the second was the CWC model G-10, used throughout the British military. Unfortunately, they were both battery powered, and while the original batteries lasted many years, that wasn’t good enough. As I said earlier, dependability is a vital quality for a tool watch. So, I eventually parted ways with those two models.
U.S. Embassy London
Retirement beckoned. I eagerly embraced the private sector. At the same time Casio was making solar-powered watches. I had avoided battery powered watches for decades (other than the CWC) because I didn’t want to be in a remote part of the world when my battery died. Now I could buy a Casio that never died. It had alarms, a back light, separate time zones, stopwatch and countdown functions, and oh, yes, it told the time. I bought the Casio G-Shock model 5600 and wore it in Sanaa, Yemen for four months when I was working as a contractor, and wore it again in Karachi, Pakistan, and Jidda, Saudi Arabia while serving on the State Department Accountability Review Boards. I also used it on business trips in the South American countries of Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. Having multiple alarms on the watch was invaluable for meetings and getting out of bed on time. Having world time zones is helpful, but most people can calculate the difference between home time and where they are located abroad. I now carry this watch on vacation trips abroad. (Read: The History Of Casio G-Shocks And The US Military)
Casio G-Shock 5600
A few years ago I sold my Rolex Submariner because after twenty years the luminosity on the hands and indices was fading. Although perhaps, it was my eyes that were getting old. I traded it in for a new Rolex Explorer II. It is a great looking watch with excellent legibility. But, the Explorer II was slightly bigger and heavier than the Submariner. Several years before, I had hurt my wrist and I found out that if I wore the Explorer full-time for a week or two my wrist got sore. Rather than leaving it in the drawer, I sold it for what I paid.
Mel with his wife, Irene in Yemen wearing a Casio G-Shock, 2001.
For those interested in reading Mel Harrison's five thrillers with RSO Alex Boyd as his protagonist, I suggest beginning with Mel's last book, Spies Among Us. It is set in London and shows the close relationship of the RSO to the CIA station. In Mel's books, Alex Boyd is wearing either a Seiko Diver day/date model or a Casio G-Shock.
Read Next: Forget Bond, A Real CIA Spy Watch
The author of this article, Mel Harrison, served in the US State Department for twenty-eight years, mostly as a Special Agent/Regional Security Officer in the Diplomatic Security Service (originally called the Office of Security). His overseas assignments were Saigon, Quito, Rome, London (twice), Islamabad, and Seoul. Temporary postings included Beirut, Caracas, Lima, and Bogota. Washington tours of duty included Regional Director for the Middle East and South Asia, and the Director of the Anti-terrorism Assistance Program. In retirement, he traveled on business to Sanaa, Baghdad, Cairo, and elsewhere. During his assignment to Islamabad, Pakistan, he received the State Department’s Award for Valor and the worldwide Security Officer of the Year award. For the last few years, Mel has written and published five fictional thrillers set in embassies around the world.