by Jack E. Riggs
“Something just bit me on my privates,” CE3 shouted.
“Calm down CE3 and speak English. Are you talking about your balls or your dick?” I retorted.
“My dick! I was taking a dump in one of the shitters and something bit my dick. It hurt like a son of a bitch.”
“HM2, you are the pecker checker. Let me know what you find,” I said.
HM2, a hospital corpsman and a second-class petty officer, took CE3, a construction electrician and a third-class petty officer, behind the curtain in the Battalion Aid Station. We were at Camp Lejeune in the mid-1990s.
“I didn’t see any bite marks, Captain,” HM2 reported to me emerging from behind the curtain. I looked and did not see anything either but I told CE3 to lay down in the BAS for an hour so we could make sure he was okay.
This was almost certainly a spider bite. Black widow and brown recluse spiders were the only spiders of concern at Camp Lejeune. The portable toilet location of this incident suggested that a black widow spider was the culprit. I had read somewhere that black widow spider bites on male genitalia were common in the United States in the late 1800s in infrequently used outhouses.
In twenty minutes, we had our answer. CE3 began writhing in pain with horrible back, abdomen, and thigh muscle spasms. We declared an actual casualty, placed CE3 onto a litter, loaded him into the back of a Humvee, and drove as fast as CE3 could tolerate to the emergency department at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune.
As the story of CE3’s predicament spread in the emergency department, many of the doctors, nurses, and corpsmen suddenly wanted to see CE3’s penis. CE3 would remain hospitalized long after our exercise concluded. The toxin-induced muscle spasms were so severe that he suffered a herniated lumbar disc that required surgery. It would be six months before CE3 was able to return to duty.
The day after CE3 was bitten, the battalion commanding officer came to the BAS and asked me to step outside.
“Doc, I need your help. My Seabees are shitting and pissing all over the woods. They are afraid to use the shitters.”
“Not a problem, Skipper. I will take care of it,” I said.
I went back into the BAS. “HM3, the Skipper says you are going to be a hero,” I announced, smiling smugly.
“Captain, I don’t want to be a hero. That sounds dangerous.”
“HM3, you are a member of the United States military, the most powerful military in the world. You are also the lowest ranking scumbag in medical. That means you just volunteered to be the hero. Put on your MOPP gear.”
Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear was our biological and chemical warfare suits. Because we were frequently gassed during field training, that gear was always with us. I also armed HM3 with a fly swatter and a few cans of uniform insect repellant spray. I told him to enter each portable toilet, destroy all spider webs, and spray underneath all toilet seats. I told HM2 to suit up as well and to pull HM3 out of the portable toilet if the battle got too intense.
HM2 asked me if the uniform insect repellant spray was effective against black widow spiders.
“I have no idea, but the can says the fumes may be harmful to humans; so it can’t be good for black widow spiders.”
Most of the battalion witnessed the ensuing spectacle.
I would spend eleven of my twenty-nine years in the Navy Reserve as a Seabee. Less than eight years after this training exercise, several of the Seabees I had trained with would be killed or maimed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would spend nearly a year as commanding officer of a combat support hospital in Kuwait.
Being a doctor in the military requires more than medical expertise and clinical skill. To be an effective military physician, particularly in the combat environment, you must be able to relate to your uniformed colleagues and patients. Operation Black Widow Spider was a training example of problem solving the SNAFUs that constantly present themselves in military operations. An effective leader must be aware of the assets at his or her disposal and be mentally prepared to recognize and implement a solution to unexpected problems so that mission accomplishment is not jeopardized.
The day after Operation Black Widow Spider, the commanding officer stopped by the BAS.
“Good job, Doc. The shitters are filling up nicely.”
After the Skipper departed, HM3 asked, “Hey, I thought I was the hero. Why did the Skipper thank you, Captain?”
“You are really a dumb ass, HM3. This is America, land of the free and home of the brave. Larger rewards go to higher ranking scumbags like me, and greater risks are taken by lower ranking scumbags like you.”
Seabees being Seabees, several dead or captured black widow spiders were brought to medical over the course of the exercise. None were killed or captured in the portable toilets. One evening in the BAS, while playing cards, HM3 confessed, “Captain, I did not kill a single black widow spider in the portable toilets. I did not even see a spider web.”
“Listen killer, we are not at war with black widow spiders. It was never intended that you kill or maim black widow spiders. You conducted a psychological warfare operation, and you accomplished your mission magnificently. You restored our Seabees’ faith and confidence in the shitters. They recognize and appreciate your effort. That is why they keep bringing us all those damn black widow spiders.”