Putting grisly skills to work
Home from Iraq, two Marines use their battlefield training to help bereaved families.
GAINESVILLE, Ga. (Fortune Small Business) -- Benjamin Lichtenwalner remembers the first time he cleaned up the grisly remains of a military catastrophe.
Four years ago he was a U.S. Marine sergeant stationed in Ramadi, then a stronghold of the Iraqi resistance. Four U.S. servicemen guarding a corner of the American base camp had popped the hatch of their tank for some fresh air when they were hit by enemy fire. Three died.
"As far as the eye could see, there were body parts," Lichtenwalner recalls. "Everything from little pieces to entire torsos."
As a member of the Marines' mortuary-affairs unit, he was assigned to scrub the outdoor area, both for sanitary purposes and to maintain morale. "Everything had to be taken up," he says. "What if a fallen serviceman's buddy came rolling through, leaned over to tie his boot and saw something that we missed?"
Lichtenwalner, 28, and his partner, Ryan Sawyer, 25, became intimately familiar with death. It was their job to prepare the bodies of their late comrades for their final ride home. This experience also helped inspire Biotrauma, the crime-scene cleanup business they started in Gainesville, Ga., in 2006, soon after their discharge from the Marines.
Whether it's a homicide, a suicide, an accident or a death by natural causes, the company restores a scene to its pre-incident appearance after the authorities have finished their investigations. Lichtenwalner and Sawyer offer customers turnkey service -- everything from cleaning, construction repair and insurance claim processing to a crying shoulder.
"Often these families have been through a lot," Lichtenwalner says. "It's our duty to help them attain closure."
Biotrauma has experienced rapid growth, much of it during the recent recession. In its first year, sales totaled $90,000; by 2007 they had reached $225,000. Last year the company posted $498,000 in revenues.
"This year we're looking to do way better," Lichtenwalner says. To that end, Sawyer, the company's president, spends his days calling on coroners and other industry professionals, while Lichtenwalner, Biotrauma's vice president, puts together a monthly newsletter promoting their services.
With five full-time employees and a few part-timers, Biotrauma handles two to three cases a week. (The cost of a job ranges from $1,000 to $6,000.) The majority are suicides from firearms, the most common form of violent death. Each year there are approximately 30,000 suicides nationally, compared with 17,000 murders, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There are three suicides each day in Georgia alone, data from the state's Department of Human Resources show.
"If we can help just some of those families," Lichtenwalner says, "we'll be doing our job."
Deaths in the home often result in horrifying and unsanitary scenes. And with the spread of HIV and other bloodborne diseases, sanitizing living spaces after a person dies has taken on a serious public-health dimension. Despite these concerns, no governing organization exists to license or regulate such businesses. (There is, however, a nonprofit trade group of trauma scene professionals, the American Bio-Recovery Association, which currently has 321 firms as members nationwide.)
The business of sanitizing crime scenes also attracts its share of macabre personalities, says Michael J. Tillman, who founded a Dallas-based crime-cleanup firm in 1999 and now holds training seminars on the subject.
"A lot of people get into this business because they want to talk about the terrible, gross things they see and post stuff on the Internet," he says.
The idea for Biotrauma came when the founders heard about a fellow Marine who had started providing crime-cleanup services on a freelance basis after returning from Iraq. Based on their war experiences, Lichtenwalner and Sawyer figured they could bring a level of professionalism to the industry, focusing on psychological remedies as much as physical ones. "A lot of companies just go into a house and cut out some carpet and wall and hand the family a bill," says Lichtenwalner.
Knowing that family members don't want to see reminders of a tragedy in their home, Biotrauma removes all trace of the death -- even painting the room where the victim died a different color. They also leave each client a copy of Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul, by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen.
Biotrauma prides itself on discretion. Cleanup teams show up in unmarked trucks with trailers attached. "We could be the lawn service," Sawyer says. Though the technicians arrive wearing blue biohazard suits and bearing industrial-strength disinfectant, they try not to attract attention from neighbors.
Andrew Fee Jr., a police officer in Forsyth County, Ga., appreciated Biotrauma's gentle touch when his 80-year-old father died of a heart attack. The elder Fee lived alone and had been dead for 10 or 11 days when his son discovered the body. But even though Officer Fee was accustomed to seeing dead bodies in his line of work, he didn't want to be on the scene for the removal of his father's remains. An assistant to the coroner recommended Biotrauma.
"They were extremely professional," Fee recalls. "They coordinated the decontamination of the property by the next day." Biotrauma also hired contractors to repair a wall and the floor and install new linoleum. Simultaneously, the firm submitted a claim to the deceased's insurance company to cover its charges.
"I didn't have to do anything other than sign the documents," says Fee.
Neither partner seemed destined to start a business. Missouri native Lichtenwalner joined the Marines in 2001, after doing "more sleeping than studying" in high school. Sawyer, the tall, preppy scion of a prominent family in Gainesville, joined the Corps to make a fresh start after partying his way through school. Neither expected to work in mortuary affairs after boot camp. When informed of the assignment by his platoon sergeant, Sawyer complained that he had joined the Marines to drive trucks. "You'll be driving," the sergeant replied. "Just with dead people in the back."
Assigned to the same mortuary unit, the pair became fast friends. After a few months in Iraq, they realized their new skills were marketable. "We actually kicked off our first Web site from overseas," says Lichtenwalner. "The base had this Internet center where you could research stuff." The two returned home in September 2005 and started Biotrauma the following January.
Both founders say the Marines provided little emotional guidance on handling death. But the armed forces have a long tradition of treating fallen comrades with dignity. Sawyer's team would gather each service member's personal effects and double-bag them with the remains. They placed each corpse in a metal transfer case, draped it with an American flag and said a short prayer before loading it onto a truck headed for the airport. Speed was important, but so were honor and respect.
"America's promise to its military is 'No man left behind,'" Sawyer says. "At Biotrauma we adopted that same attitude."
Biotrauma's headquarters are housed in a one-story brick building at the Manufacturing Development Center, a business incubator run by Lanier Technical College. Carroll Turner, MDC's CEO, says giving space to Biotrauma was a no-brainer, even though it's not a manufacturing concern.
"They had the passion that's required to be an entrepreneur," Turner says. "With their military training, they look at this as a service to families, more of a calling than a job. That sets them apart."
So do their experiences. Many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been counseled for post-traumatic stress disorder, yet Lichtenwalner and Sawyer have maintained their poise while constantly surrounded by death. "Growing up, I always had a weak stomach," says Sawyer. "But Marines are trained to adapt and overcome." Adds Lichtenwalner: "We were desensitized to the work, just like a doctor is."
The next step for Biotrauma, they say, is to recruit investors and expand to other states. But Tillman, whose firm attempted a similar ramp-up a few years ago, is skeptical. Part of the problem, he says, is that law enforcement officials are often prohibited from passing along contact information about for-profit businesses such as Biotrauma. And it's not easy to sell any business associated with death. "The public doesn't want to hear about us," Tillman says. "They want to think about good things, not bad things."
But the founders of Biotrauma are convinced their business is scalable. They're currently planning a handful of owner-operator satellites within driving distance of Gainesville.
"What we're dealing with is a public that doesn't know there are professional services that do what we do," says Sawyer.
Lichtenwalner believes his and Sawyer's experience and attitude give them an edge. "We never set parameters on what we will or won't do," he says. "Whatever it takes to get the job done -- we share those values with the Marine Corps."
Photos: Biotrauma at work.