By Tony Gennaro
As a first lieutenant stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, I trained combat medics. Thirty-two were in my unit and much of the time we crawled through hard and loose dirt, mud, grasses, vegetation, and moved in and out of foxholes. I warned the trainees about the critters we would encounter, including numerous chiggers.
My comments to the medics before training exercises began consisted of the following:
The chigger is only one-sixtieth of an inch in size, microscopic, and too small for us to see.
It is active during the summer and especially abundant at Fort Hood. The chigger has three stages in its life cycle, but only the larvae feed on human tissue. Larvae cling to vegetation and clumps of soil and attach to humans and other animals that brush against their launch position.
Once on human skin, chiggers bite the tissue and add digestive enzymes to it. This prepares the tissue for ingestion by the chiggers. They remain on the skin’s surface during the feeding process. Eventually the larval chiggers drop off to the soil and develop into adults.
Our chigger encounters were a daily event. As early chiggers departed our bodies, we were invaded by replacements, and their digestive enzymes created itchy welts on our skin on a continuous basis. The itch occurred primarily under the elastic bands of our shorts and socks that required our scratching, which brought about complaints of all kinds, including verbiage that a grandma would not want to hear from her grandson.
Various kinds of medications were issued that gave us temporary relief. In cases when excessive scratching caused secondary infection, specialized medical personnel were consulted.
Everyone used the best methods possible to relieve bodily discomfort. After all, none of us could go home. We used the best field methods allowable, such as pants tucked into boots, and the repellents DEET and Permethrin. And, it seemed that the chiggers were always waiting for us.
The wonderful part of the Fort Hood chigger experience was that no one complained about chigger discomfort except to themselves. Such a complaint would be a definite “no-no.”
After all, the individuals in my training unit realized that chiggers were only a minor invader compared to those they would encounter during their future as a combat medic, one of the highest risk positions in the military.
— Tony Gennaro, Eastern New Mexico University distinguished faculty emeritus in biology