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Wounded vets on new battlefield: Saving kids from child predators

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Screen shot via PROTECT on Vimeo

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A new program, designed specifically to help wounded veterans “transition back to purpose-driven careers,” has placed these warriors on a new battlefield: “to locate and rescue American children from sexual abuse and human trafficking.”

“The [Human Exploitation Rescue Operatives/H.E.R.O.] Corps is a joint project of the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Upon completion of initial training in mid-October, the HEROs will join [Homeland Security Investigations] field offices across the U.S. for a one-year internship leading to employment in law enforcement,” according to a press release from PROTECT last fall.

Now, the first 17-members of the child-rescue corps have completed their training and have been deployed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices to begin catching child predators, the Associated Press reported.

The H.E.R.O. Corps members were heavily recruited from the elite U.S. Special Forces community whose “combat experience is proving to be an asset when it comes to dealing with the emotional toll of the job,” veterans told the AP.

“They built their career upon fighting for this country and keeping citizens of this country safe,” ICE Special Agent Patrick Redling said. “What better to get somebody already with that mindset into a program where it’s another battlefield, very similar, but you’re keeping our children safe. You’re taking predators off the street.”

Although the veterans aren’t being paid for the year-long internship, they are gaining “highly marketable skills, including professional certification in digital forensics,” which will serve them well if they choose to pursue careers in law enforcement, PROTECT said of the corps on its website.

Computers
“Weapons of a H.E.R.O.: A state-of-the-art child-rescue work station”
Photo via National Association to Protect Children

“The veterans have two priorities: analyze the evidence to assist in the prosecution of a suspect, and help determine if there are children still in harm’s way who need to be rescued,” the AP explained of the mission.

Oskar Zepeda, 29, who was injured after serving “nine tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan,” told the news service he spent his first day with agents conducting a raid: “We went on a raid and it was almost like I never left the Army. It was like, `I’m ready. Let’s do it.”‘

Army veteran Shannon Krieger told the AP this was exactly the type of work she was looking for – “a new fight I could sink my teeth into.”

“I’m talking about young kids, 18-month olds, toddlers. This is some of the most horrible stuff I could conceive of imagining and I’m looking at it on a daily basis,” she said.

“[H]undreds of thousands of criminals [are] distributing child pornography online,” according to information on PROTECT’s website, but “fewer than 2% of these cases are being investigated, due to sheer lack of law-enforcement resources.”

Using state-of-the-art technology, H.E.R.O. Child-Rescue Corps – this “Army of Protectors” – “will employ wounded veterans to do exactly that: monitor the online traffic, identify the hands-on offenders, and rescue the child victims from their abusers.”

Watch some of PROTECT’s Vimeo videos on the H.E.R.O. program here.

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