Solemn Duty

Tuesday September 01, 2009 – SOLEMN DUTY
Crime scene cleanup crew helps families in dark times It would be easy to call two former Marines, who learned their grisly trade on the battlefields of Iraq, the grim
reaper’s cleanup crew. But they see their work in an entirely different light. Benjamin Lichtenwalner and Ryan Sawyer view Biotrauma, the company they formed in the wake of war, as bringing light itself into the very darkest of circumstances. “This is definitely a calling, a chance for us to help people though dark times,” Lichtenwalner
said. “We are a business. We do want to feed our families, but there is also a sense
of obligation to help people in the toughest moments.”
Lichtenwalner and Sawyer formed Biotrauma, based in Georgia, three years ago after
returning from Iraq, where it was their duty to collect and care for fallen fellow warriors. They went to work cleansing the scenes of crimes, suicides and other grim incidents of death after realizing that in most cases, families of the dead were left cleaning up the remains themselves. The statistics are as grim as the work they
do. Every day in Georgia alone there are three suicides, more than a 1,000 per year, 70 percent of which are carried out by firearm. There are 650 homicides a year. There are even more natural deaths that turn into decompositions
because others don’t realize the person has passed away, Lichtenwalner said.
“Out of all this, 80 percent of families will clean up themselves. There’s no reason someone should have to traumatize themselves again like that,” Lichtenwalner said.
Although others may shudder at the thought of it, both Lichtenwalner and Sawyer
say the work is more honor than horror, more privilege than pain. “I’m a man of faith. I am a believer,” Sawyer said. “Now, with the way our business is running and the amount of families we’re helping every day, I know without a doubt the man upstairs definitely had a plan.”
It was a plan they never would have made themselves. Lichtenwalner had joined the
Marine Corps Reserve to be a cook. Sawyer was a truck driver. But when their unit got
orders for Iraq, both were “voluntold” to report for training in Mortuary Affairs. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a shock,” said Sawyer, who was a fraternity pledge, beer in hand, when his platoon sergeant called with the news. “We were trained in a matter of weeks, and then we were on our way downrange,” Lichtenwalner said. “I didn’t ask for the job, but through doing it we came to see how important it was in helping bring closure.” No training could fully prepare them for the work they do. “Somehow you find a way to survive it. Everyone is different in terms of how they deal with it,”
Lichtenwalner said. “I call it the switch. You flip the switch when you go to work. Like a doctor, you do what you have to do, but then you go home and you have a heart again.”
The two soon realized there was more to their job than the clinical collection and processing of remains. Providing a ready ear and warm cup of coffee to unit escorts — usually a friend of the fallen tasked with accompanying the body home — wasn’t in any standard operating manual, but it became as much a part of what they did as anything else. “Just being there with them was fulfilling a need, but it also helped us learn how to speak with people in these incredibly emotional circumstances,” Lichtenwalner said. Their experiences have helped tailor their
business approach, as well. “There are some in this line of work who will schedule a cleanup several days out, ”Sawyer said. “That’s just unacceptable. We always respond immediately. I don’t care if it’s Christmas Eve — and we’ve handled
cases on Christmas Eve — we’re going to be there.” And they’ll be there until the job is done. “There’s no such thing as a two-day job,” Lichtenwalner said. “Everything we do goes back to something we learned in the Corps: So, it doesn’t matter if it takes 15 hours, you stay until the mission is done.” It’s the same reason their company vehicles don’t have any identifying markings and why they suit up in their hazardous-material suits out of public view. “The family doesn’t need that kind of circus in their yard,” Sawyer said.
Lichtenwalner and Sawyer started laying the groundwork for their business while they
were in Iraq, doing online research, getting training lined up and preparing paperwork for licenses as well as putting together the company Web site.
They also put aside about $16,000 as starting capital. Although they had to work
full-time jobs in the beginning, within a few months, Biotrauma was getting its first calls. Less than three years later, they now have five full-time employees and five more parttime technicians. Last year, the company did $500,000 in business.
“We’re putting everything we make back into the company,” said Lichtenwalner, who sees Biotrauma at the forefront of a new industry. “A hundred years ago, you didn’t have funeral directors. This is just the next logical step. If we can grow this as big as we can, ultimately we are elevating quality of life by freeing people up from a terrible burden.”
— Jon R. Anderson
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