- (Photo: REUTERS / Omar Sobhani)
Wounded vets are fighting child pornography through a program that teams up with Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices. 17 former veterans with physical or psychological injuries have been repurposed into the Human Exploitative Rescue Operative Corps, or HERO Corps, for a one-year stint to catch some of the foul predators in the nation.
The wounded veterans now fighting child pornography were recruited through PROTECT, a children's lobbying group, who initially pitched the idea. Now select veterans either transitioning or already removed from the military are being trained to catch a different kind of target, according to the Associated Press.
One such veteran is Staff Sgt. Oscar Zepeda, whose nine tours with the elite Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan ended in September 2011 when a suspect blew himself up. Zepeda woke up three days later with severe injuries, but 25 operations and months of physical therapy later, he is ready to take on a different task.
"I'd go on a mission, identify a person, capture them, prosecute them and put them away. Here, I'm looking online, identifying a person, catching them and putting them away," the married father of five told The Seattle Times. "To me, it's a second chance, another opportunity to continue serving my country and doing what I love to do."
Most of the veterans spend much of their time looking at flash drives and computers confiscated by field agents and try to figure out whether the children are still at risk. Sometimes they are asked to go on raids for search warrants, though.
"We went on a raid and it was almost like I never left the Army," Zepeda said.
Zepeda and the other HERO interns were given 10 weeks of training in computer-forensics analysis and federal laws applicable to child sexual exploitation. Although the internship doesn't come with a salary, those skills are valuable to employers, and the government is willing to help the wounded veterans find positions after the internship is complete.
Zepeda is assigned to an HSI office in Seattle, but others in the HERO Corps are situated around the nation. Shannon Kreiger, who served in the Army, is now fighting on another front in New Orleans.
"This was a new fight I could sink my teeth into. That's what I was really looking for. I wasn't just going to take a job so I can have a paycheck," she said.
Furthermore, veterans who have already been exposed to the horrors of war are better suited to handle "the real dark side of what humankind can do," Kreiger told AP. "I'm talking about 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."
The exploitative nature of child pornography and the difficulties catching predators is something that connected with Zepeda as well.
"I love challenges. And I have a family of my own," he said. "I feel I'm still serving my country and protecting my family at the same time."