John Krusenstjerna traded Kevlar and a machine gun for a hazmat suit and respirator, doing something in America’s heartland that many veterans struggle to do — making a career out of the skills he learned fighting America’s wars.
The retired Marine sergeant has gone from the streets of Fallujah to meth labs in Iowa, from cleaning homes where Muslim extremists murdered Iraqi families to scrubbing crime scenes of blood, body parts and drug residue.
While it may sound gruesome, Krusenstjerna’s Iowa CTS Cleaners — a crime-scene cleanup business just outside Des Moines — is booming. He has not only brought the war home with him, but he has found peace and become a driven entrepreneur at a time when Gulf War II veteran unemployment hovers around 10 percent.
“You have a very hard-working mentality when you get out,” Krusenstjerna said last month while on the way to clean up a meth lab fire in Cedar Rapids. “You’ve got to keep that mind-set going. You don’t want to lose that sizzle. It’s hard to get back when you lose that.”
People like Krusenstjerna are a shining example of what to do when separating from the military, say officials from the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Some veterans — especially infantry or those who have seen combat — become incapacitated by the theory that their skills don’t translate to a civilian career. Separation from military often happens quickly, officials said, thrusting a servicemember from an insulated, mission-driven environment with a strong support base to being on their own. Many also are processing their experiences and perhaps nursing mental and physical wounds.
“Many of them have a significant amount of decisions to make in a very short window,” said Rosye Cloud, a senior VBA veteran employment adviser. “For younger veterans, it could be their first time in the labor market ... Now they’re the mission.”
Finding his own way
It’s not surprising that Krusenstjerna, 31, found his own path. He grew up in suburban Des Moines, the son of self-employed business owners.
By age 7 or 8, Krusenstjerna was operating a forklift at his parents’ paper and packaging distribution business or working at his grandfather’s trucking company. It wasn’t long before he was interacting with customers and taking care of problems, said his father, Jay.
In high school, he worked several jobs, starting after school and extending long into the summer months. He had his own landscaping company.
He worked so much that his parents cautioned him about keeping up his grades. But Krusenstjerna still found time to wrestle and play football and golf.
“Work has always been his favorite thing,” Jay Krusenstjerna said. “He never wanted to do any other profession [other than an entrepreneur].”
John Krusenstjerna joined the Marine Corps in 2003. He became a truck mechanic but was moved to convoy security in 2004 as the Marines moved into Fallujah. He would serve nine months in country.
In 2006, he was back in Iraq for a seven-month deployment as a sergeant in charge of an engineer detachment building combat outposts for the Army and Marines in Ramadi.
During some 60 missions during the battle for the city, he learned to lead by example. And he discovered his calling.
Preparing combat outposts in Ramadi involved picking a house in a high insurgent activity area, clearing it, working to pay and relocate the family, and fortify the house it with sandbags and barriers.
In one house, Krusenstjerna found a family that had refused to leave when ordered by insurgent forces. Members were executed and left under a pile of blankets in a bedroom.
His Marines looked to him for guidance, as he was trained in hazardous materials. As they removed the blankets and began to clean where the bodies had been, the smell hit him.
“I got some bleach and scrubbed it until I got it cleaned up,” he said. “[In the Marine Corps] you have to make it happen.”
Jay Krusenstjerna also recalled his son telling about finding a fellow Marine who had committed suicide.
He said his son possesses a unique mental toughness.
“Now that would give me nightmares,” Jay Krusenstjerna said. “He has emotion in his heart, but when it’s time to work, he gets going. He respects it but he doesn’t dwell on it. He puts it in a different compartment.”
Business takes off
Krusenstjerna left the Marines in 2007 with an eye on a job in law enforcement. But his mind flicked back to that house in Ramadi, and he began researching crime scene cleanup. He discovered it was a relatively unfilled niche.
“There is no company like mine in Iowa,” he said. “I couldn’t even go work for one to see if I could do it. I basically had to reinvent the wheel.”
He poured money into his new company, buying tools, obtaining certifications and training staff. His parents urged him to start taking jobs so he could support himself, but Krusenstjerna wanted to be absolutely sure he was ready.
In 2009, police fatally shot a man who pointed a gun at them as they served a search warrant. Krusenstjerna got the call to clean up blood at the scene after marketing his company for only six days.
About 20 jobs followed in the next year. Now he fields over 100 per year — including deaths of all kinds. There also have been spray-happy skunks, rodent infestations, and a deer that flung itself through a glass door.
Then there are meth lab explosions and fires, which he needed a special certification to detect and clean.
“Basically, we clean the messes that people never think about happening or the ones they don’t want to,” he said. “You can do more than you think you can.”
Krusenstjerna approaches them all the same way.
He arrives with his crew and gear, which includes protective clothing, a respirator, air scrubbers, power tools and a massive array of scrapers and chemicals. He meets with the homeowners and often consoles them, sometimes for hours, as they mourn the loss of a close family member to suicide or murder.
Then his team gets to work, cleaning, ripping out blood-soaked carpets, floors and subfloors, repairing and deodorizing the home. He works out a payment plan with the families, sometimes losing money to ease their pain.
“That’s his biggest thing: He’s willing to help,” said Kyle Dumermuth, operations manager at Iowa CTS Cleaners. “He’s taken big hits to help people out … The military bestowed some great values in him.”
There have been some particularly rough jobs, Krusenstjerna admitted.
In a way, he said he feels he’s reliving his service, performing a trying task and taking pride in doing it right. Instead of pleasing Marine leadership, he is easing the suffering of grieving families.
Insulated from the crime scene by their gear, his team usually turns on the radio and keeps things light if the family is not at home. It is tougher when they can hear grieving family members, and they work in silence out of respect.
“There are a few things I like about it,” Krusenstjerna said. “You get to help people in a time of need. You get a good feeling when you go in and help someone that has nowhere else to turn. Then there is that feeling of accomplishment; you can see the results. And every day is different. You never know what you’re going to encounter.”
Krusenstjerna has built close relationships with law enforcement personnel who enjoy working with a professional, veteran-owned and -operated business. He now has more work than he can handle as his team’s reputation has spread. He is now in charge of seven employees who have cleaned more than 900 trauma scenes since the company’s inception.
“He started from nothing and built it into something,” Dumermuth said. “He provides a great service.”
‘Get out and do something’
Krusenstjerna knows the problem of veteran unemployment is real for the 2.8 million who have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He has heard the horror stories and while he sympathizes with some, he has seen others fall into bad habits.
“I wish guys could see, when they get out, there is stuff out there they can do,” Jay Krusenstjerna added. “Be creative. Don’t just sit back. There is life after the military.”
Krusenstjerna’s advice is to hit the ground running, be creative when entering the job market and embrace a soldier’s unique work ethic and skills. Keeping up his physical training regimen three times a week also helped, he said.
“Don’t sit there and do nothing and rot,” he said. “Get out and do something.”