- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Marine Sgt. Benjamin Lichtenwalner and Lance Cpl. Ryan Sawyer had the unenviable task of cleaning up the dead while stationed in Iraq.

Rather than bemoan the assignment, they embraced it. The families of fallen soldiers deserved nothing less than the dignified treatment of their loved ones’ remains.

Now, the former Marines are applying their singular skill set stateside. They hope to spare grieving families from one of the burdens left behind when someone close to them dies at home.

“Eighty percent of all these cleanups get cleaned up by the families themselves,” says Mr. Lichtenwalner, co-founder of Biotrauma, a Gainesville, Ga.-based death-scene cleaning firm.

Their line of work isn’t something most people think about, although “Sunshine Cleaning,” an independent film that opens Friday, showcases two young women, played by Emily Blunt and Amy Adams, who provide such a service.

As a Marine, Mr. Lichtenwalner originally worked as part of the support element for the infantry, which typically involved cooking and mechanical work. Then he was assigned to mortuary affairs - “search and recovery for fallen U.S. servicemen,” Mr. Lichtenwalner says. The task was once the domain of the Army, and only recently did the Marines take over the sensitive chores, he says.

His education came, in part, from attending an autopsy and visiting the storage area where decomposing bodies awaited further investigation. The sights - and smells - prepared the Marines for what they would find on the battlefield.

“I was one of the first Marines to be trained and deployed for this occupation,” the 27-year-old says. “If a helicopter went down, we’d search for human remains.”

His unit would prep the bodies for transport, tentatively identify who they were and provide what he calls “mild ceremonial duties.”

“It made us realize we had the skills to help out families back home. We knew homicides and suicides occur in people’s homes,” he says. “We didn’t know how often.”

Their new line of work relies on talents similar to those they used in Iraq, although they work to keep their emotions in check.

“We train our guys to do certain things, like don’t look at pictures on the mantel, don’t get emotionally attached to the situation at hand,” he says.

Yet their mission requires a certain amount of humanity.

“We are there to be sensitive and provide that shoulder to cry on,” Mr. Lichtenwalner says.

Biotrauma workers aren’t counselors, but they employ similar communication tactics, he says.

“It goes back to speaking to the comrades of fallen servicemen. … We were doing that every single day,” he says.

Mr. Lichtenwalner’s company uses basic hand tools to remove carpet and drywall, if necessary, plus an ozone generator to eliminate odors. Family members shouldn’t be reminded of a tragedy by lingering odors, he says.

Mr. Sawyer, a reservist, was hanging out at a rush party with his future fraternity brothers at the University of West Georgia when the Marines called him to duty.

“I joined the Marine Corps knowing that every Marine is in it to adapt and overcome any challenge that comes forth, so I was very open to the assignment,” Mr. Sawyer says. “I understood every Marine has to look out for one another.”

The work taught him that people react to death in different ways, whether the attack involved a machine-gun blast or an improvised explosive device (IED).

“Each one had its own story. ‘I should have taken a left instead of a right,’ someone said, or they should have done this or that. You get all these different emotions,” the 24-year-old says. “You have to be able to accommodate everybody. Who’s to say their reaction is right or wrong?”

Cleaning up death scenes in Iraq may have prepared Mr. Sawyer for Biotrauma, but it also raised the bar higher than he could have imagined.

“We dealt with this [work] under the craziest of situations,” he says. “It’s like putting a batter’s ring on your bat before you step up to the plate. That batter’s ring for us was Iraq.”

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