SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — Between beetles, bad guys and band-aids, “Doc” Martinez has been pretty busy this year. Being deployed to Iraq accounts for the latter two — but beetles?
When he’s not providing medical care, Army Spc. Cristian Martinez can usually be found trying to catch or catalog a host of critters largely indigenous to Iraq.
Specifically, he’s hunting for beetles.
With help from his mentors at Chicago’s famed Field Museum of Natural History, Martinez has been gathering as many varieties of beetle species as he can find.
Other soldiers have been helping him, too, keeping their eyes peeled for beetles when they are out in the field.
Beetles, Staphylinidae beetles in particular, “are perfect working machines,” said the 22-year-old entomologist from Cicero, Ill. “They exploit all possible evolutionary niches, whether it’s feeding on flowers, fungi, or being social parasites.”
Martinez got, well, bitten by the bug during the summer prior to his senior year at Morton East High School.
A biology teacher, hearing that Martinez was planning to travel to Zacatecas, Mexico, to see family, asked him if he could collect any beetles he might come across.
As instructed, he froze his catch and brought them home to the teacher.
That same summer, Martinez worked as a lifeguard at a local park district pool.
Every morning, he would volunteer to skim the pool for insects.
“After that, it was fair game” on any and all insects, Martinez said. “Ever since, I’ve been interested in entomology, particularly beetles.”
At first, fellow soldiers, many of them Idaho and Utah National Guardsmen, thought his hobby was kind of creepy.
But then they would see beetles and other bugs and bring them back to Martinez.
One of them is Pfc. Arnold Gomes, a mechanic from Pocatello, Idaho.
“I’m interested in bugs, myself, but never learned anything about them,” Gomes said from their base camp in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. “He has kind of motivated me. They’re different, that’s for sure.”
Iraq has dozens of beetles that are found only within or near its borders. When caught, Martinez meticulously preps the samples for later study.
“I’m really doing it for one particular guy, a graduate student,” he said.
Martinez’s ties to the Chicago museum go back to last year, when, as a student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, he worked on an undergraduate research project.
The museum staff liked Martinez enough to offer him an internship.
When he told them he was shipping off for a year in Iraq, they pledged to keep the slot open until he fulfills his commitment to the Illinois National Guard.
His “field work” in Iraq underscores his interest in insects.
“Any job in nature that needs to be done,” Martinez said, “they do it.”
Something soldiers in a war zone could well appreciate.