WASHINGTON – Today’s swearing in of 15 U.S. military veterans at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) headquarters marks the graduation of more than 100 “HEROs” into a special program designed to allow wounded, ill or injured warriors the chance to continue serving their country on a new battlefield – the fight against child predators.
Initially begun as a pilot initiative in 2013, the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative, or HERO Corps, program has now trained more than 100 former U.S. military members in computer forensics and law enforcement support of online child sexual exploitation cases. In May 2015, the President signed the HERO Act into law, which formalized the program within ICE’s Cyber Crimes Center.
The HEROs graduating today were sworn in by ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale. The ceremony also included Sergeant Major Rodney J. Rhoades, senior enlisted advisor to the U.S. Army assistant chief of staff for installation management, and Grier Weeks, chief executive officer of the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT). At this point, the HEROs have completed the first phase of the intensive, one-year training program. In the next phase, they will help ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents identify and rescue child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, and arrest their perpetrators.
HEROs attend three weeks of training provided by PROTECT, which provides an overview of the child sexual abuse problem specifically covering child abuse and trauma, child sexual abuse prevention, prosecution of child sex offenders and coping with the stresses of working in the field of child sexual exploitation prevention. The HEROs then complete eight weeks of digital forensics and child exploitation investigation training, conducted by HSI – the same training given to special agents.
Upon successful completion of both training courses, the HEROs deploy to HSI field offices across the county for 10 months to train with and assist HSI special agents with criminal investigations. HEROs will work under the direct supervision of HSI special agents, conducting computer forensic exams, assisting with criminal investigations and helping to identify and rescue child victims.
“The camaraderie among HEROs who are in training and those working in the field is an important part of what makes the program work,” according to Justin Gaertner, a HERO graduate from the inaugural class who is now a computer forensic analyst at HSI Tampa. “I was scared at first, not knowing if I would fit in or what my job would entail, but once I got to SAC Tampa they welcomed me with open arms and made me feel that camaraderie I had when I was in the Marines. The special agents I work with are the best at what they do, and I’m proud to be a member of their team and assist them in any way I can.”
William S. Krieger, a computer forensic analyst at HSI Raleigh also reflected on his experience as one of the first graduates of the program, “As a disabled veteran I did not get to leave the Army on my own terms. I was medically retired. The HERO Corps has allowed me to continue to do something that matters. There are several programs that are designed to help veterans but the HERO Corps is the only program that offers vets the chance to go back to work with some very marketable computer skills, and also the opportunity to help put bad guys in jail and save children from some horrible circumstances. As a member of the first HERO Corps class, I am so proud and honored to be able to give back and see brother veterans take this path, and hopefully, feel the same satisfaction I have felt.”
Funding of the program is provided by ICE and PROTECT. PROTECT, a non-profit organization, covers the costs of participant travel and relocation expenses while ICE provides the computer forensic training and equipment, procures vendor-specific training and provides hands-on field experience and mentorship. Private partners like Wounded Warrior Project have joined the effort to help PROTECT continue to fund much of the cost of the program.