KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Better look in that sleeping bag before you jump in, because American paratroopers, infantrymen and snipers aren't the only things occupying the Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan.
The arid base surrounding the war-ravaged terminal is also home to an army of lethal snakes and ants. There are also softball-sized spiders, scorpions, centipedes and disease-bearing ticks — and some giant beetles that are just plain gross.
"Soldiers are checking their shoes early in the morning before they put their feet in them, checking their uniforms when they wake up, checking their sleeping bags at night," said Army Maj. Arthur Lyons, a base doctor from Alexandria, Va. Awareness, and a healthy fear, is the best defense, he said.
Perhaps the most deadly animal found on the base is the sand-colored carpet viper. If bitten, the 2-foot-long snake's venom can cause blood clots and bleeding that can kill if an anti-venom is not administered quickly.
"We're seeing these guys all over the place," said Spc. Michael Kubik, 22, of Orchard Park, N.Y., a health and safety officer who collects samples of the more dangerous creatures at the base. "In about 30 minutes time, I found about a dozen of these."
The drought-ravaged area of southern Afghanistan is also home to the Naja Naja cobra, commonly known as the Asiatic cobra, which can grow up to eight feet long, and rise up to four feet high when it is about to strike.
"Luckily, we haven't seen one of those yet," he said.
No soldiers have been bitten by the snakes, but Kubik said that as Afghanistan emerges from its bitter winter and temperatures rise, encounters with some of the fearsome native critters will increase.
Some face-to-pincer meetings have occurred already.
Capt. Richard Buck, 29, a camp dentist from Louisville, Ky., said he was just settling down after a long day when his dental assistant found an unwanted guest.
"He had just taken his boot off when he looked down and found a scorpion right there, beneath his feet," Buck said. "He jumped about 10 feet."
Another soldier found a softball-sized camel spider in his tent, Kubik said. Others have seen 2-inch-long beetles with enormous emerald-shaped rumps. Both are harmless, but not exactly something you want cuddling up to you in a sleeping bag.
Lyons, the base doctor, said ticks can also be a nuisance, and even a war enemy: Ticks carrying the deadly Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever have been found in the region.
Ticks bearing less virulent diseases are far more common, but still must be kept at bay. "If enough soldiers get them and they're out of the theater for a while, it could reduce the fighting force tremendously," Lyons said.
Another creature at the base that is potentially deadly is the harvester ant, a larger and more vicious version of the tiny fire ant.
"If they get into your foxhole, they will attack and if you get stung by enough of them they will kill you," Kubik said.
Members of the health and safety team spend their days spraying the tents of the 4,200 troops — special forces, 101st Airborne soldiers, and men and women from other coalition countries — to keep the creepy crawly things away. They also spray for bugs at the detention facility where scores of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners are held.
The main challenge, Kubik said, is to make soldiers aware of the risks.
"Just talking to people is not enough. We actually have to show them to get their attention and pretty much scare them," he said. "We've got to get them paranoid."