Biting off more than she can chew!

Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
Most people know that war is hell, but they really don't understand that hell isn't all about big Hollywood production numbers featuring special effects like hellfire and brimstone and volcanos and tidal waves. Hell can be a tiny parasite. Hell can be waiting and waiting. Hell can be simply not having control, being pushed this way or that, or not knowing what will happen next. Or as this saga reveals, hell can be an insect!

I'm no stranger to ticks. I grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Northern Arizona and worked in the Coconino National Forest. I've seen stunted Junipers alive with swarming ticks, waiting to brush off en masse onto luckless horses or their riders. And I've had my share of ticks. They've gorged themselves fat on my blood and I've killed them. No big deal.

Most Vietnam war stories would be about leeches. Those slimy, squirming blood-sucking parasites that you don't even know are all over you until you take a tactical rest and spot their sickening antics. But hey, they don't seem to bother with me for some reason. One mission in the mountains we were "sneaking" through a creek under double-canopy (might've been triple for all I know) to do a cliff face assault of a supposed NVA helicopter attack training camp in a cave and I think most everybody in Charlie Company got leeches but me and heck, my boots and pants were wrapped same as everybody else. Same thing happens now when I go bush walking, my family gets leeches but I don't (knock on wood), but of course I'm careful about it.

But I hate ticks! There are about 850 species of ticks worldwide and I hate them all! They come in two families, the Ixodidae (hard ticks), and the Argasidae (soft ticks), and both blood sucking arthopods transmit more disease that any other vector. The effing ticks seek victim (hosts) by a means scientists call "questing" which we call "ambush". They crawl up and perch on the edge of grass or leaves or needles with their front legs extended, ready to latch on to any passing animal... or grunt. There they wait patiently, their miniscule brains sweeping for carbon dioxide, movement or heat as I pass by. Then they lunge and plant their ugly mugs with backward spines through my skin and suck, suck, suck, and their saliva hardens like cement while they're feeding to keep them at the trough. I hate ticks!

Ticks have never done anything for mankind... well, except maybe for once when they provided a moment of levity for the battle-hardened troops of Charlie Company on an extended foot operation in the mountains of II Corps. And I hate ticks for that, too!

We'd been airlifted into an old French triangular fort on a mountaintop that once guarded a little used trail. The Viet Minh had vainly tried to blow up the reinforced concrete blockhouse, but their zigzag trenches up to and under the barbed wire showed their skills at other military pursuits, and I wondered how it would have felt to be one of the French and Vietnamese troops in the remote besieged posts in the weeks or months that led up to the inevitable conclusion. The plan was to operate from that LZ at the edge of the range fan and spend eight days working back along the ridges and valleys towards the temporary FSB set up in the mountains with a pair of 105mm artillery batteries and secured by an ARVN battalion. This was pure Indian country!

We worked for days through the mountains, mostly ridge running, dodging ancient punji stakes and bypassing the occasional perfectly-round fishing pond created by B-52 strikes. The ultimate target was an elusive enemy regimental headquarters, and we were part of a multi-company sweep searching for it, trying to ferret them out and blow them away. But instead we found... ticks. Or rather, ticks found me!

The first assault was bad enough. Have you ever had a tick bury itself in the soft fleshy part of your armpit? It's a constant irritant that doesn't go away no matter how much you scratch or pick at it. And in the tropics, there's the ever-present danger of infection as well. The whole idea is to get rid of the ticks before they bury their mouth too deep. Yeah, right! The problem with that free advice is that you don't notice them until it's already too late - plus you itch for days after they're out anyway. Anyway, the tick in my right armpit could've been an underground miner, so deep had it implanted itself. I did what comes naturally and ended up with its fat body tossed into the jungle somewhere and its dead head buried in my armpit to rot. Situation resolved for the most part, but then things took a turn for the worse!

I felt the tell-tale signs of tick infestation again - localized pain, itchiness, discomfort.... Here I should mention that I didn't wear underpants in the field! Yeah, I know, people who hadn't been in Nam might think that was kinky... and, heck, it might even turn a few women on (alas, none that I know), but it did tend to stop rashes (diaper rash?) and infections. Anyway, one of my natural barriers to ticks was down, and they had only jungle pants to penetrate to seize the high ground... and seize it this particular tick, whom I choose to believe was female, did! She seized it with a vengeance and buried herself with a sigh deep into the fleshy part of my circumsized, well, you know. It bothered me so much that I had to walk (well, patrol) with my knees together!

As the company commander of Charlie Company at the time, it's safe to say that the troops all had my best interests uppermost in their minds at all times. When my predicament became known at the next tactical break as I asked a medic to lend a hand, I was overwhelmed with well-meaning suggestions from the troops. I'll only mention a few, because the images associated with some others are too painful to contemplate even now!

The airborne solution was to climb a tree, tie a string around tick and tree, and do a PLF (parachute landing fall). The alternative suggestion was to tie the dummy cord from the tick to a rock, swing the rock a few times over my head in a big loop, and then send it off over the edge of a nearby cliff.

Another soldier suggested cutting an X and sucking the poison out, but I quickly reminded him that that was a treatment for snakebite.

Someone else suggested a judicious placement of C4, noting that the usual warning cry "fire in the hole" might have to be modified. Alternatively, the chemicals in heat tablets would be so unpleasant that the tick would back out, and if it didn't the tabs could always be set alight to provide a little more motivation. What was wrong with the simple idea of blowing out a wooden match and placing the still hot head on the tick to get the same effect?

The William Tell solution was more straightforward, and involved substituting one type of head for another, the tick for the apple, and an M16 for the bow. Alternative suggestions of using an M60, M79 or even a call for 8" artillery fire weren't helpful, nor was amputation.

In the end (pun intended), I tried using Army insect repellant to encourage Miss Tick to disengage and, when that didn't work, ripped her fat body off leaving the head behind. Fortunately it was nearly out and soon joined the body, otherwise, I would probably have had to do some creative explaining over the years from time-to-time. I kept the crime scene liberally doused with disinfectant, and, you guessed it, kept walking with my knees together until we emerged from the mountains a couple of days later.


Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,

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By Ray Sarlin, webmaster of the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website
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