The other enemy in Afghanistan: creepy-crawlies
BAGRAM, AFGHANISTAN — When Maj. Scott Stockwell of the US Army received word that his unit was being deployed to Afghanistan, he knew it meant all-out war for bugs.
Major Stockwell, of the 25th Medical Attachment of the 3rd Armored Corps, fights sand flies, mosquitoes, houseflies, and ticks just about any critter that could cause downtime for American troops at the US airbase at Bagram, an hour north of Kabul.
"My job is to close with and destroy the enemy with extreme prejudice," Stockwell says.
Noting his PhD in entomology from the University of California, Berkeley, he adds, "Yup, I'm pretty much the baddest combat entomologist we've got here."
Stockwell is stationed at Bagram to control insect pests and make sure that US fighting troops are on their feet and ready to do battle with Al Qaeda and Taliban forces on the ground. However, since their last major stand in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, militias loyal to Osama bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar have slipped into the shadows, and the war has shifted into an insurgency of sporadic hit-and-run attacks. While front-line American combat troops await a call to arms that never comes, the 25th Medical Attachment Stockwell, assisted by three other soldiers is the only conventional combat unit at Bagram doing any fighting these days.
"We see action every day," Stockwell says. "We may be killing right here on the base, but just outside the base, we're having zero effect. We're seeing a constant reinforcement of the ones we've killed. They just keep coming."
Coils of concertina wire, machine-gun nests, minefields, checkpoints nothing can stop the bugs from slipping inside the base, where they can jeopardize the health of American soldiers.
"Of course, the good thing is that the bugs don't carry M-16s or AK-47s," Stockwell says. "Instead, they carry nasty little diseases."
Of primary concern at the moment are sand flies, tiny, biting insects that have been linked to leishemaniasis, a disfiguring affliction that is endemic in local villages. The pests are also associated with sand fly fever, which was thought to have been responsible for as many as 10,000 American casualties when Gen. George Patton invaded Italy during World War II.
Historically, bullets and bombs kill or incapacitate only a small fraction of fighting men and women; ill health brings down the vast majority, making Stockwell's bug blockade a critical line of defense.
According to Stockwell, the tactics used in interdicting military and insect targets are essentially the same.
"We take the exact same approach to our enemy as the infantry takes to their enemy," Stockwell says. "For us, if we were to go after the bad guys, we would look at it just like a pest problem. Okay, what kind of pest are we dealing with, what are the habits of this pest, how does it make a living, where does it go, how can we find it, how can we exploit what we know about it to help us kill it?"
As part of his war against bugs at Bagram, Stockwell makes sure that mosquito breeding grounds, such as pools of standing water, are diligently drained, and that garbage is kept covered to deny flies safe harbor. But for the most part, the 25th Medical Corps is a chemical warfare division, spraying insecticides on buildings and walls, fogging tree lines, and laying down fly-killing bait.
"This is the pinnacle of military service for a combat entomologist to be in a place like this, where the bugs have to be killed every day," Stockwell says. "Our motto is: 'Try to kill something every day.' "
Even as he exterminates, Major Stockwell seeks understanding. In his spare time, he is hard at work collecting beetles, wasps, grasshoppers, spiders, and centipedes to help fill in the huge gap in the entomological record that exists for insects from Central Asia in general, and Afghanistan in particular. Decades of war have prevented entomologists from gathering specimens. In fact, Afghanistan's six- and eight-legged creepy-crawlies are rarely found in institutional collections.
"Most people come here to shoot other people, or buy opium, and that's about it," Stockwell says. "People don't come here to collect insects."
The last major collection effort was undertaken by the British military during the last of their Afghan Wars, in 1919. When it comes to the natural sciences, Afghanistan is a data-scarce environment. Stockwell hopes to help change that.
"We're getting together a collection of whatever we find, and all of these things will eventually end up in the Smithsonian collection," Stockwell says. "It would not surprise me if some of the things we've already collected are actually new to science, never been seen before."
Stockwell, an expert in venomous insects, is particularly keen on finding scorpions. His research in the US has uncovered several new species, and he has even had one variety named in his honor. Scorpions have proven to be scarce at Bagram, but solpugids are everywhere. These spider-like beasts range in size up to about two inches long, and have beady eyes, hairy legs and massive, elongated jaws they use to slice their prey to ribbons.
"They look like monsters from another world," says Stockwell, who has collected several specimens, including a pregnant female, who skulk in a variety of cans, jars, and plastic water bottles in his lab.
Stockwell is excited by the possibility of doing pioneering research, but his primary mission is to dispatch hostile bugs, and he says he's killed, "bzillions of 'em."
"I kind of think of myself as doing bad to do good," Stockwell says. "And yeah, my karma's kind of screwed up for the rest of my life. But when I see little dead bugs everywhere, I feel good. I feel like I'm doing the world some good."