For U.S. forces in Haiti, tarantulas, centipedes pose hazards in and out of tents

October 10, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Of all the dangers facing U.S. forces in Haiti, perhaps none is more feared than the tarantula spider. Except perhaps the poisonous centipede. Or the banana spider, a nasty little critter with a yellow body and a painful bite. Not to mention the millions of mosquitoes and fleas, which can make life impossibly irritating.

"I've seen tarantulas as big as footballs when they're spread out," said Master Sgt. Timothy McMahon, 37, a veteran of 18 years' service with the Air Force. "There are brave people who kill them. I'm pretty quick. I just get the hell out of it."

If the flora of Haiti -- the hibiscus and bougainvillea, the coconut palms and the mahogany, the lime and almond trees -- are made in paradise, then the fauna, particularly the creepy crawlies, come from somewhere else.

They lie in wait for the unsuspecting, particularly in "Tent City," where 1,500 U.S. troops now live under canvas in what is the insects' natural habitat, the long grass around this capital's airport.

The creatures crawl into empty bunks, hide in boots, snuggle in uniforms, or simply wait in the grass to pounce on passers-by.

"Check your boots and clothes for spiders," advised Senior Airman David Lynn, 23, a veteran of three weeks' service in the bush here. Just yesterday he swatted a poisonous brown recluse spider on his arm.

"I killed him pretty quick," he said.

Master Sgt. Russel Maheras of the 436th Airlift Wing out of Dover, Del., recalled: "One guy picked a tarantula up. It's like sticking your hand into a pit bull's face."

The troops at "Tent City" have created a resting place for dead spiders. It's called "Charlie Rock," a boulder in the middle of the camp. Yesterday there were five fist-sized tarantulas and two 6- to-8-inch-long poisonous centipedes baking in the sun on it.

The soldiers have actually been told not to kill the tarantulas because they consume so many other poisonous insects in the course of a day's eating.

"They eat seven times their own body weight every day," said Senior Airman Scott Card of the 62nd Supply unit out of McCord Air Force Base, Washington.

To combat the threat from the insect world, the soldiers spray their uniforms with Perrethrin, a mosquito repellent, and are banned from eating in their tents.

But for Lt. Col. Henry Scott, battalion commander of "Task Force Strike," which is located at the airport, the heat and the humidity are worse than the insects.

"When we got off the planes at 6:30 that morning, it was like 'Whoa, this is not Fort Drum.' We came in with these soldiers each carrying 11 quarts of water. And I bet we are probably drinking 11 quarts a day now. You have to constantly keep the force from dehydrating."

Generally, life under canvas at the airport here seems pretty comfortable to Colonel Scott, who said: "In some respects this is better than we live out in the field at Fort Drum. A lot of time our mission as light infantry soldiers doesn't let you set up camp of any kind. I am used to just lying there and letting the rain drip all over my body."

Whether bitten or dehydrated, soldiers wind up at the field clinic. There Maj. Curtis Schultz can tell a tarantula bite at first glance -- two round holes a centimeter apart.

"They are actually nonvenomous," he said. "The only problem we have had is secondary infection."

There has been only one serious allergic reaction from an insect bite, a soldier whose leg turned red and became swollen. He was shipped over to the army hospital.

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