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European edition, Saturday, August 25, 2007

Capt. Wes McCardle’s favorite insect is a mosquito.

“I love mosquitoes. Have you ever seen them under a microscope? They’re beautiful … like a Corvette — kind of sexy but dangerous if you don’t handle them right,” he said Friday after a farewell ceremony for his unit, the 71st Medical Detachment, which is deploying to Iraq for 15 months.

The 35-year-old Martinsburg, W.Va., native will have plenty of time to get acquainted with his mosquito friends downrange. His military occupational specialty is 72 Bravo: Army entomologist.

An entomologist, as those familiar with “The Far Side” comic strip know, is an insect expert.

Perhaps the most famous U.S. Army entomologist was Maj. Walter Reed, who, in 1900, led a team that confirmed the theory that yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes. The discovery allowed the U.S. to complete work on the Panama Canal, which had stalled after 22,000 project workers died, mostly from malaria and yellow fever.

McCardle, who studied wildlife management, entomology and insect ecology in college, has helped reduce mosquito problems at Army posts in the southern U.S. and has a mosquito collection with about 40 specimens, he said.

While others do all they can to avoid mosquitoes, entomologists occasionally let themselves get bitten to test repellants, he said.

Another insect commonly dealt with in Iraq and other places is the humble cockroach. McCardle said it is important to keep dining facilities clean to stop cockroaches from infesting them.

At his last duty station, in San Antonio, he dealt with a mysterious ant infestation that contractors could not get rid of in a fourth-floor hospital burn unit.

“I found out it was an African feral ant. They had been spreading pesticides. If you do that with these ants it breaks up the colony into new colonies. You have to bait them out,” he said.

A common myth in Iraq is that sun scorpions are dangerous and will chase you, McCardle said.

“The sun scorpions don’t do anything to us. They like to hang out in the shade, so when you are moving they will scuttle after you chasing your shadow,” he said.

The sun scorpions are 2 to 3 inches long and are yellow, whereas the poisonous scorpions in Iraq are black and red.

Entomology is not as safe as some people might assume. One entomologist was hospitalized after stepping on a poisonous scorpion in his boot in Iraq, McCardle said.

Despite his battles with insects, McCardle does not regard Army entomology as a war against the creepy crawlies.

“I just try to change our behavior to discourage insects from coming into our environment,” he said.

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