View Full Version : Cleaning Up Death At War — And At Home

03-24-09, 07:16 AM
Tuesday, Mar. 24, 2009
Cleaning Up Death At War — And At Home
By M.J. Stephey

Benjamin Lichtenwalner was working as a cook in the Marine Corps when he got word that his unit's mission was about to change — drastically. He spent two tours working in "mortuary affairs," a job that took him all over Iraq to search for, recover and clean up the remains of fallen soldiers — one of the most important and gruesome yet least talked-about military assignments. TIME spoke with Lichtenwalner about his experiences and why he and fellow Marine Ryan Sawyer decided to launch a similarly tasked company called Biotrauma Inc. in their native Georgia.

How did you first react to your unit's new mission?

It was a shock, but of course when I joined the Marine Corps I anticipated having to be around death. I wasn't really crazy about being a cook, but when they switched our job up, I wasn't really crazy about being doing [mortuary affairs] either. [Laughs] But I was prepared to be around death, and once we got started, there was really no turning back. I realized just how important a mission Ryan and I both had. We kind of viewed as a calling. Just like, what we do now is our calling.

So tell me how they trained you guys.

One thing they did was send us to the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office — that's the county that Atlanta, Georgia, belongs to — and they had us view an autopsy. That got us acclimated to the gore that we see. Fulton County also has a decomp room where they store bodies that have been decomposing for any length of time. So we went to that room and got to smell the stench of death, that was like the initial kick in the butt. Then after that we had a month of classroom training. We would do mock search-and-recoveries out in the woods, looking for fallen soldiers stateside before we were deployed. (See a TIME Photographer's Diary)

What was it like when you first got to Iraq and you went on your first mission?

The first recovery that I went on, this was in '03, it was in the city where Jessica Lynch was captured, Nasiriyah. What happened was you had two tanks rolling through the streets of this very crowded city. One tank was ambushed by insurgents [and] the second tank called in for air support to quell the ambush. The plane that came in had a friendly fire incident on the first tank, and 14 servicemen passed away.

So what we had to do was go in, recover this tank and try to tentatively figure out who was in it and collect all the evidence. This was all done at a time when there were a lot of insurgents in the area, there were thousands of people on either side of the road, so we had to do crowd control in order to give ourselves room to do our work. We had the crowd pushing forward so we had to push them back. And there were rooftops everywhere; it was a very sticky situation. But we ended up recovering the tank and we were able to help identify all 14 fallen servicemen.

And how does that work?

We don't do any positive ID because we're not a laboratory, we're sort of like the field application for those guys. We'd go and collect any evidence we can — dog tags, name plates, paperwork — you would think that it'd be so simple, but it's not always so simple. Some guy could have a name tape on his blouse that says "Jackson," but you know when you're out in Iraq, clothes can sometimes be hard to come by, so sometimes you'd get a buddy loan his shirt to another buddy and that guy could get shot and pass away and then the name he's got on his shirt isn't necessarily the right one. So we would try to collect these clues, and sort of hint at who they may be, but of course we couldn't do any DNA testing. That happened back stateside.

Did other soldiers treat your unit differently?

It was sort of funny that when we’d chat with other Marines in the chow hall and they’d ask what we did, they would sort of stop talking with us. I think it definitely made our unit closer.

Was there any sort of psychological training?

The psychological preparation really happens at boot camp. They pretty much prepare you for anything. If you're going to fail you're going to do it there, usually. But above that, there really was no psychological training. They put us in shock value scenarios, like viewing those autopsies, they put us in front of that to gauge our reactions, and I think most everybody dealt with it pretty well. That being said, one thing we do back home at Biotrauma, we've identified the fact that stress has a cumulative effect on the body. We seem to be strong, or at least we tell ourselves that, [Laughs] and we haven't had any problems, but that's not to say something couldn't happen down the line. So we keep a real close eye on our employees.

Not too long ago we were at a coroner's convention, and we were speaking with a funeral director, and he said that for 30 years he's been in the funeral business without incident. But a couple months back, he just woke up sweating and screaming, kind of freaked out his wife. It was late at night and he had a nightmare about one of the guys he had embalmed earlier that day. That goes to show you how psychological stress can chip away at you over time.

After you recovered these soldiers, what happened next?

We would place the remains in a transfer case, which is sort of like a metal casket, and would drape the flag over it. Then we would load them on the aircraft for transport. And when we would load them on, we did a little ceremony. The flight crew would be involved, standing in formation on either side of the bay doors, and we would do a little march from our vehicle to the plane and would situate the transfer case into the plane. There's a flag hanging overhead, and it's very solemn and very quiet. There was no audience. This was a ceremony performed by warriors for warriors.
(Click here for a Brief History of Photographing Soldiers' Remains)

When did you and Ryan decide to launch Biotrauma?

My 2nd deployment, the one that Ryan was on, was from February to September '05. We would get to talking with the escorts as they were hanging out in our lobby prior to shipping the remains out. We got to talking with these people and started to notice how emotionally distraught they were when they were connected to such traumatic incidents. And we realized we had the skills to help these people out back home who were going through these types of things, and what came to mind was homicides and suicides. We knew it happened in people's homes, and we sort of figured they were doing this themselves — 80% of these clean-ups still, even today, get cleaned up by families themselves. And there there's just no reason for it, because what we do is all covered by homeowner's insurance. There's no excuse for anybody to have to do this themselves, especially when it's essentially free to them.

How did the rest of your unit react when they heard about your plan?

A lot of our peers sort of made fun of us, they were cracking jokes, they thought it was lame to be starting a business, but maybe those same guys will be asking us for jobs next month. [Laughs]

Tell me about your company.

We call what we do "biotrauma remediation." We're providing the remedy for not only the biological hazard, but also the trauma that stems from that hazard. Our service is two-fold: we do the clean-ups, but we also care about the people and try to provide the most sensitive service that we possibly could.

What does the job entail?

We go in and perform the most detailed decontamination we could possibly do. If someone passes away on the carpet, then chances are the blood and body fluids are going to seep out down into the property all the way to the foundation, so you're talking through the carpet, the padding, the floor and whatever else. If that's the case, we've got to go in, get structural clean-up, every last bit of contamination, then we issue a certificate when we're done so they can have confidence that things were done the right way and perhaps resume living at the residence or have confidence selling it or renting out the room again. That's the physical side and that has to be done perfectly.

But another thing is that, let's say a mother just had the suicide of her son in the kitchen. If she's cooking a week later and she pulls out a pan from her rack and turns it over and sees a little spot of blood on it, that's such a huge traumatic reminder of what happened. We refuse to let that happen. So what we do is we get lights, we go top to bottom, left to right, like an inch from the wall, just looking over everything. And that's part of the physical side, but it's also the extra step we take to take care of the psychological side. We did a cleanup of a suicide in someone's living room — it was a young kid, he was 18 — this was right near Christmas, and there was tissue everywhere from the gun blast. Unfortunately we had to throw away the tree. Well, one of the things we did, we brought them over a new Christmas tree, and the look on their face after that happened. I mean, obviously, a Christmas tree isn't going to do anything to erase what happened, but just that gesture, to know there was some good in the world out there, even after something like that. It really meant a lot to them.

How has this job changed you?

The samurai had this mentality that you could never really experience life to the fullest unless you lived like you were ready to die at any moment. This field helps solidify the reality that life is finite.