The leeches

During the time I spent in South Vietnam I became very acquainted with these voracious pests. Of course you can probably guess from the title of this story that it is the leeches I am talking about. These aren’t water-living leeches that my fellow North Americans might be familiar with. The leeches in South Vietnam and throughout tropical Asia live on the jungle floor and are always waiting for a meal to come by. They can be very tiny or up to maybe a couple of inches long.

These leeches were not rare and in some places I encountered them by the hundreds and thousands. In appearance they have the approximate color of a common earthworm and about the same texture as an earthworm but are tougher and not as squishable as an earthworm. Their method of locomotion is the same as what we see in the North American inch worm or measuring worm. The leech pulls its rear end up to its head to form a loop and then stretches out to grab hold of something and once again pulls its rear end forward. Once they are on the move and seeking you out they can move very fast.

I’ll describe an encounter with these creatures. One day while patrolling thru the jungle the lieutenant gave the order to stop and take a ten minute break. I took my helmet off and turned it upside down and then used it as a seat to keep my butt off the jungle floor as I sat down to take my pack off and rest. Not long after sitting down on my helmet I could see leeches crawling up the crotch of my pants. There were more leeches crawling up my pant legs. I began to pick them off and throw them away as fast as I could. They were replaced by others just as fast as I picked them off. I looked at the ground near my feet and the helmet I was sitting on and I could see that leeches were everywhere. I looked farther out onto the jungle floor surrounding me and everywhere I looked there were leeches. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. All crawling toward me as fast as they could. They acted like they were starved and would never have another chance to eat again unless they made it to me. Every once in a while one of them would raise up on its hind end and turn the head of its body this way and that, like it was sniffing, and then when pointed in my direction, it would resume its frantic crawling to try to reach me before my blood meal was gone. It could have been a scene from a horror movie, except it was real. I knew that before the day was over I would have a few leeches sucking my blood no matter what I did to avoid them. There were just too many.

These jungle leeches were very stealthy. You could not feel them crawling on you once they got on your skin. They had a circular mouth and you could not feel them biting you. I guess they used some kind of anesthetic before taking a bite. Then they would drink their fill. The only way to find leeches on you was to look or have someone else look you over. There would be a pinching sensation as they let go after drinking their fill but at that point the damage was already done. And damage they could do. We soldiers were usually in the jungle for such long stretches of time that we were always dirty. Any leech bite would get infected. Usually by the next day. At one point in my service there I was so negatively affected by this that I ended up in a hospital, something which I write about in another story.

So, if you are planning a trip to tropical South Asia and have never been before, plan on picking off leeches if you make any trips into the jungle.

Terry Coats

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