Worse Than Death

By Will Dabbs, MD

“What did you do in the war, grandpa?”

That’s a question as old as the Roman legions. Young men go to war, and old men tell their tales. For most old soldiers, their time in combat defines their lives. If the toilet bursts on Christmas Eve or your daughter brings home some worthless boyfriend festooned with piercings, it’s still likely not quite as edgy as that time the FOB got slathered in BM21 rockets.  

One such soldier came back from his time in combat with a tale most horrific. He was a platoon sergeant of mine, and a fine soldier, indeed. Just thinking about what happened to him makes my skin crawl even today.

For the sake of discussion, we’ll call him Hank. Hank was a superb NCO—technically competent, fair, smart, and utterly dedicated. He seized the initiative and didn’t quit until things were done right. He also led by example.

The Setting

Hank was deployed to the desert on the other side of the world. Most of the planet was going to war, and Hank was a small but critical part of all that. Nobody does war like Uncle Sam, and this one was no exception. Logistics flowed in by air, sea, and ground, and hundreds of thousands of Coalition troops got ready to head downrange and do the deed. The engineers dug latrines to support the tent cities that blossomed up across the desert expanse. In short order this weird artificial world found its level. Now hold that thought.

The Monster

The camel spider is a particularly diabolical beast. Also known as sun spiders or wind scorpions, this order of animals includes more than 1,000 discrete species. The rather definitive name notwithstanding, these creatures are neither true scorpions nor true spiders. The family name is Solifugae. These impressive monsters are found in dry arid spaces and grow up to half a foot across.

Camel spiders are not venomous, but they do have some epically nasty mouthparts. Scientists call these little miniature biological scimitars chelicerae. These appendages are similar in function to a crab’s pincers, inflicting deep nasty wounds that are bad to get infected.

Camel spiders are also exceptionally agile. They can run at up to 10 mph on a friendly surface. A typical fit soldier should technically be able to outrun such a beast, but that is still impressive performance for a big six-inch malevolent bug.

Bodily Functions

Doing one’s business in the field can be an arduous undertaking regardless of your gender. One particularly austere GI latrine I sampled in a staging area during a deployment with the infantry consisted of about 25 wall-mounted toilets arranged elbow-to-elbow under a common cover. First thing in the morning, that place was the social epicenter of the enterprise.

In Hank’s case, however, he felt he’d do better with a little privacy. As a result, he headed out to the two-hole open pit latrine late in the evening equipped with a red lens flashlight and a firearms periodical, prepped for a little quality time. Thusly configured, one night Hank dropped his trousers and mounted the primitive contraption, savoring both the solitude and the cool desert air.

Now That’s Just Horrible…

We shall never know what went through the big camel spider’s microscopic brain. Apparently the inside of a pit latrine was somehow appealing to the ghastly thing. Regardless, this particularly gigantic arachnid had staked his claim to the vile space. 

With no forewarning, this half-foot toothy monster leapt up and dug its roughly 1-centimeter set of razor sharp mouth-blades into Hank’s free-swinging ball sack. It hung on long enough for Hank to utterly lose his mind and then unhooked itself, dropped to the ground, and scurried away to foment chaos elsewhere. Hank, for his part, was subsequently in a fairly agitated state.

His wounds were modest but nonetheless objectively dreadful. Given their propensity for infection, the flight surgeon medevac’d Hank and his ventilated genitals back to the rear. Hank regained his physical health in relatively short order, but his emotional state never quite recovered. If nothing else, he retained an innate and understandable lifelong phobia concerning field pit latrines.

Terrible things happen to young men in war. Were it not so vile, our politicians might be even quicker to embrace it. However, for one American NCO thousands of miles from home his war was particularly discomfiting. He was actually bitten in the nuts by a gigantic desert spider. When it comes time to regale his grandchildren with tales of valor, were it me, I might just opt to employ a little poetic license on the details.

From the FE Films Archive

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