It didn't take witnessing a live autopsy or absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of decomposing bodies at the Fulton County, Ga., Medical Examiner's Office to prepare Ben Lichtenwalner for two tours of duty in Iraq as a mortuary affairs specialist.
"They tried to expose us to all of that stuff before we went over there," he said. "When you join the military, you have to prepare to deal with death, even if it's your own."
Originally trained as a cook, Lichtenwalner, 27, a former Marine sergeant, was retrained in 2003 in how to retrieve and care for the remains of troops killed in combat. The skills he learned would serve as the genesis of Biotrauma, a Gainesville, Ga.-based biohazard cleanup business Lichtenwalner started in 2008 with fellow Marine Ryan Sawyer.
Sawyer, 24, -- a former truck driver also retrained by the Corps in mortuary affairs -- and Lichtenwalner met in 2005 when the two were deployed to the Al Anbar province in western Iraq with the 4th Marine Logistics Group's Headquarters Company, based in Marietta, Ga. Sawyer and Lichtenwalner are graduates of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
While serving in Iraq, Lichtenwalner said, the pair learned how to clean up and process remains, and also how to deal with the emotions associated with death.
"Oftentimes, there would be an escort attached to the remains of someone killed in combat," he said. "They were usually a buddy from their unit or someone who knew them, and so we would naturally start talking to them and we learned how to deal with sensitive situations."
After hearing of an ex-servicemember back home who had turned his military experience into a profitable crime-scene business, Lichtenwalner and Sawyer decided to start doing some research on the industry while they were deployed.
"We had Internet access over there so we started doing some research and found that 80 percent of families ended up cleaning up after a homicide or suicide," Litchenwaler said. "The reality is that, in most cases, your homeowner's insurance covers to pay someone like us to come clean it up."
BEGINNING OF A BUSINESS
Biotrauma was started while the pair were deployed in Iraq, and in January 2006, Lichtenwalner and Sawyer returned from deployment and began working, following first-responders and investigators to clean up after violent or natural deaths.
The company now has 10 employees and charges from $500 up to $6,000 for its services, depending on the scope of the job and the nature of the death.
Lichtenwalner said the firm has worked a few jobs in South Carolina but is looking to have a more pronounced presence in the Palmetto State. They plan to network at the S.C. Coroners Association's annual training convention in June on Pawley's Island.
Ultimately, Lichtenwalner said, the company he and Sawyer conceptualized while deployed in Iraq is providing families a sensitive hand in times of tragedy.
"No one should have to clean up after something as traumatic as the death of a loved one."