View Full Version : In life's worst moments, Marines know what to do

03-19-09, 09:53 AM
In life's worst moments, Marines know what to do
Thu, Mar 19, 2009 PB Online

By Kevin Horrigan

This is a war story. It's also an economy story. It's like a Horatio Alger story, only with body parts.

One day four years ago, two young Marines were sitting around their quarters at Camp Taqaddum in central Iraq, talking about what they'd do with lives after their enlistments were up. All Marines are riflemen first, but these two guys had been taught a particular skill, one they thought might transfer nicely to civilian life.

Sgt. Ben Lichtenwalner, then 23, and Cpl. Ryan Sawyer, then 20, were members of the 4th Marine Logistics Group, a reserve unit based in Marietta, Ga. Lichtenwalner, who grew up in Lee's Summit, Mo., had been trained as a cook. Sawyer, a Georgia boy, had been assigned to the motor pool.

But when their reserve unit was activated, they were "voluntold," as they say in the Marines, for what now is called a Personnel Retrieval and Processing unit.

In those days, the unit's name was a little less impersonal. It was called Mortuary Affairs.

What Lichtenwalner and Sawyer did in Iraq was care for the bodies of dead Marines. Also dead soldiers, sailors, contractors, civilians and an occasional insurgent. But mostly Marines. This was in 2005, arguably the worst year of the war, in eastern Anbar province, which from 2004 to 2006 accounted for more U.S. fatalities than any other province in Iraq.

They got some training before they headed over to Iraq and then spent a week learning the ropes from their predecessor unit at Camp Taqaddum, west of Baghdad between Fallujah and Ramadi. Marines call it TQ.

"As soon as they handed things over, that day I had to drive out to the flight line to pick up three bodies," Sawyer recalls. "TQ is a major air base, so they'd fly the bodies back to us. We'd check the dog tags and the personal stuff, make a tentative identification, put them in body bags and into what they call a transfer case, drape a flag over it and get them back out to the flight line."

When the bodies didn't come to them, they went to the battlefield to pick them up.

"Very often they were dismembered," Sawyer said. "You have to focus on the good you're doing. You can't look at the bad side of it, put yourself in that kind of stress. You have to view it as keeping a promise, that no man is left behind."

Lichtenwalner and Sawyer were Marines. They didn't have to like the job to see it as important and try to do it well. Each Marine got a warrior's farewell, a short and moving ceremony from his fellow Marines. "It was a very sacred moment," Sawyer said.

The more they investigated, the more they discovered that no one back home in Atlanta really specialized in cleaning up after crime scenes and suicides.

Thus was born Biotrauma Inc., whose first Web site was launched from Camp Taqaddum. Since 2006, Lichtenwalner and Sawyer have been entrepreneurs, building a business in between running out to crime scenes and suicide scenes, handling the grisly cleanup with what they pledge is the same care and sensitivity they gave fallen Marines.

"When we get to the scene, the body is gone," Sawyer said. "Our job is what's left. Seventy-five percent of suicides are by firearms. When someone takes a weapon to their head, it causes quite a mess."

But as with most start-up businesses, things are tough at first.

"There are 1,000 suicides and 600 homicides in Georgia every year," Lichtenwalner said. "You do the math. We ought to be working five to 10 times a week. But eighty percent of the time families do it themselves, even though it's covered by most homeowner's insurance policies. "

Once a Marine, always a Marine, so they keep plugging along. They hired a PR firm to get their story out, even to far-flung places like St. Louis, because even if you're not anywhere close to Biotrauma's offices in suburban Atlanta, they'll find someone to do the job for you.

They do a nasty job well, and I hope things work out. Someone besides Iran and Halliburton ought to benefit from that damned war.

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.