Although an entire genre of horology is dedicated to the military-issued watch, there are very few accounts written by servicemembers who actually wore them during combat operations. Blog posts and entire websites cover the topic, oriented on design elements and specifications, manufacturer details, and the conditions of inventory and issue to troops, but first-hand accounts of where and why they were worn are nonetheless slim.
Perhaps there are simply very few veterans who care to write about the intersection of horology and military service. Truth be told, I only stumbled into the realm of mil-spec tool watches because my Timex field watch’s band fell apart during my third deployment to Iraq in 2008.
Although I failed to accomplish a repair with 100MPH tape (duct tape), or affix a field-expedient paracord bracelet to replace the delaminated nylon strap, I have the good fortune to recall the day I checked into 1st Battalion, 5th Marines as a newly-minted infantry officer in 1996. The supply officer regrettably advised that although I rated a foot locker, valise pack, and wristwatch, he had none of those items on hand, and I could only sign out a flyer’s kit “parachute” bag to store my personal fighting-load equipment.
This moment stuck with me though, and 12 years later aboard a temporary combat outpost near Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain (a landmark now known to many due to myriad ISIS atrocities), I sought out the unit SuppO in the hope that he might be able to field a replacement instrument. He knew nothing of the old practice of issuing an officer’s complement of personal items, but he chuckled when he said he could solve my watch problem. Thus my relationship with the Marathon Tritium-Search and Rescue (TSAR) was born.
“He knew nothing of the old practice of issuing an officer’s complement of personal items, but he chuckled when he said he could solve my watch problem.”
The original Marathon SAR was purpose-built to adhere to Military Standard W-46374G (abbreviated to MIL-W-46374G), in order to fulfill a military contract. It drew inspiration from the Stocker & Yale Type 6 Sandy 660 (designed to meet the previous MIL-W-46374 “F” specification), and the SAR prototype design utilized a Sandy 660 case body. Although the Sandy 660 only saw service from 1995-1998, its design elements are effectively mimicked in several modern offerings. You can read more about the standard and the Sandy 660 at Olive-Drab.com.
Marathon eventually developed a new case shape for all subsequent SAR watches and derivatives. Current versions are marked ISO 6425 on the case back, as they adhere to the requirements prescribed by that standard. This protocol governs submersion in fresh and salt water, magnetic and shock resistance, illumination markings, and spring bar strength. My particular quartz TSAR (serial # 2701772) was manufactured in January 2008 and came into my possession 10 months later.
On the note of tritium illumination, there is a myth I want to dispel which I have seen regurgitated on several forums and Youtube comment sections. Unless you find yourself operating under zero illumination conditions (e.g. in a dark basement), the tritium glow from a watch like the TSAR will not automatically expose your position in ambient starlight/moonlight conditions. An adversary would have to be at almost conversational distance from you — and utilizing night vision optics — in order to see the glow from the watch (if it wasn’t already covered by a sleeve). In that circumstance your adversary would hear you or see your body’s outline first, and you’d have bigger problems to contend with.
When my Artifice Horoworks-modified Seiko SKX007 is not on my wrist to get a full wind, the TSAR is what I typically use, and I wore it exclusively on operations. I have accidentally dropped it from a six-foot height onto a concrete floor, worn it through brutal sandstorms and extreme temperatures, and knocked it around the insides of armored vehicles during patrols and raids with such force that I winced and expected the sapphire crystal was cracked or the bezel dislodged.
It has withstood the shock of thousands of rifle and pistol caliber rounds fired in training, and sweat induced from miles of forced marches and physical training runs. It is an absolute beast. The only weak areas are the Maraglo (Marathon’s lume substance) bezel triangle, which has a tendency to fall out, and the strap keeper. The vulcanized rubber strap is very robust, but the keeper on my original separated and I could not source a replacement without purchasing an entire strap.
“I have accidentally dropped it from a six-foot height onto a concrete floor, worn it through brutal sandstorms and extreme temperatures, and knocked it around the insides of armored vehicles during patrols and raids with such force that I winced and expected the sapphire crystal was cracked or the bezel dislodged.”
Despite the abuse endured on operations, my TSAR hasn’t skipped a beat. It is thoroughly suitable for combat arms tasks, in part due to the hacking movement that allows for precise adjustment (via a robust knurled crown) to a precise time “mark”, in preparation for maneuvers, attacks, and fire support coordination. Equally useful is the fact that with tritium vial illumination on the handset and dial, you merely rotate your wrist to assess the time, rather than tie up a free hand to actuate a button on a digital watch. As an in-extremis weapon, I suppose you could even put a TSAR in a sock and use it as a sap.
I wore the TSAR through the remainder of that third Iraq deployment, and a year later to the southernmost coalition outpost in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It was on my wrist during my recent commissioning as a Foreign Service Officer. I’ve spotted other TSARs in the wild at the oddest of times, such as the dining hall queue at the U.S. Transit Center, Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and on the wrist of a security officer at the entrance to the George P. Schultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center. I gave his watch a knowing glance, looked up and nodded, and got a nod in return.
I serviced the TSAR once to add a 12-hour GMT bezel, and with the exception of routine battery replacement, it has performed without concern, holding steady at a weekly loss of one second. It will eventually need to be re-lumed at some point because the tritium vials on the handset and dial have an expected lifespan of 20 years. I expect to have passed it on to my first grandson by that point, so he can wear, maintain, and appreciate this tiny piece of history.