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Leeches, leeches everywhere


When I was in Lao language school, I learned the Lao word for leeches was “ping.” This word described what most folks think of when they think of leeches, the kind that live in the water. The big, black ones that show up in the movies after the character has crossed a river or stream. However, there are actually two types of leeches you have to deal with in the jungles of Laos, as I was to learn later.

On one of my first missions doing the POW/MIA searches with Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, we went to a village that was located in the mountains near the border of Laos and Vietnam. We were looking for a site where the bodies of two American soldiers, who had been killed during combat during the Vietnam War, were last seen. Three elderly villagers told us they knew where the site was located and would lead us. We hiked a good distance into the jungle when it became apparent that the villagers were not exactly sure where they were. They suggested that we stay where we were while they found the spot, and then they would come back to lead us there. The Lao officials that accompanied us thought that would be a good idea, so we got to cool our heels in the jungle for an hour.

Now, I had my wide-brimmed hat on to keep the sun and rain out of my face. As I stood there, something small and black, falling from the trees, hit the tip of my brim directly in front of my face. When I glanced on the ground, I saw what I thought was a small, black caterpillar. When I asked the Lao official what it was, he told me in English that it was a leech. That’s right. Leeches falling out of the trees. The colonel found out the hard way. When we got back to the base camp, he pulled off his boot to find a bloody sock. A leech had gotten into the seam between his pants and boots and had dinner. Since leeches secrete an analgesic to numb the area, he had no idea that one was on him. This prompted a buddy leech check to ensure no one had a leech sucking away where he could not see it.

The other occasion to experience the wonderful world of leeches was on my last mission before I left Active Duty. We were going to scout out a crash site, deep in the jungle, that was a potential site that may have the remains of a pilot. We followed the villagers into the jungle for about 40 minutes. I was directly behind our two guides. As we rounded a corner in the path, the villagers went up on this low rise off to the right. I could see the path led directly into a body of water. This was the crash site during the rainy season. I took another step and the sunlight caught a spider web that was about
face-level for me stretched across the path. In the middle of the web, again about directly face-level to me, was one of the biggest spiders I had ever seen. Now, I don’t like spiders at all, so I stopped. The two villagers started speaking to me and I heard the word “taat”, which translates “to cut.” So, I thought they were suggesting that I use my machete to cut down the web. When I said this to them, they were going “no, no, daat,” and pointing at my feet. I looked down and I was standing in swarm of those little black leeches. I had about ten on each boot working their way up my leg for a bite. I knocked them off and warned the others. That is how I learned the name for the ground leech to go along with the river leech.

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