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Military vets fight a new enemy: child porn

The HERO Corps is recruiting wounded veterans to help curb a rising online scourge. In fighting child pornography, some veterans – already trained to be tenacious and to cope with disturbing images – say they've found a new way to serve their country.

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    Military veteran Cpl. Justin Gaertner trained at the Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, Va., to learn skills to help prosecute online child predators.
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When Cpl. Justin Gaertner was first flipped up into the air, he instinctively reached for his rifle.

As a combat engineer deployed to Afghanistan and tasked with finding roadside bombs, he was not unaccustomed to explosions. He had been rocked by major blasts four times previously.

But this time, his best friend, Sgt. Gabriel Martinez, had been hit by an improvised explosive device minutes earlier and lost both his legs. It was Gaertner’s job to sweep a nearby field so that the evacuation helicopter could land safely. That’s when he was hit by a secondary bomb.

As Gaertner landed and tried to grab his rifle, however, he couldn’t move. He, too, had lost both his legs.

On the helicopter ride back to the field hospital, Martinez and Gaertner, who had remained conscious through the blasts, held hands the entire way. “We literally didn’t let go of each other,” he says.

For Gaertner, the forfeitures of that day did not end with his legs. Nor did they end when, weeks later, after receiving emergency care in Afghanistan and major surgeries in Germany, the two friends were separated. “It was heartbreaking to get rolled away.”

Gaertner had lost his legs, and also the sense of camaraderie, passion, and meaning that he had found in his job and among his fellow soldiers. While in rehab after his injuries, he quietly lobbied to return to Afghanistan, “but only if I could get my metal detector back.” The military declined this request.

Yet on a bright afternoon last month, Gaertner gained a new set of comrades defined by a new sense of purpose as 22 more military veterans were sworn into the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative (HERO) Corps in Washington.

Their purpose: to use the skills they have honed in combat – where they have been called to look, undeterred, upon the gruesome and shocking – for a new front in the war against child predators.

The hope is that these recruits will lend much-needed manpower to comb through a huge backlog of computer data, say US officials – swept up in cellphones, hard drives, thumb drives, laptops, and DVDs – that could be used to prosecute predators and locate victims.

“The HERO Corps is beautiful in its simplicity,” Laura Junor, deputy undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, told the recruits at their graduation ceremony. “It takes those of you who were born to serve and whose careers were cut short for reasons beyond your control and allows you to reapply your gifts.”

But it is a task that is, in some respects, just as daunting as what members of the HERO Corps faced in the military. Gaertner for his part says he has already seen images that he may never be able to unsee.

“As a mother of two girls I love more than anything ...,” Dr. Junor said, her voice cracking and trailing off, before adding, “You do great stuff.”

The need is enormous – and growing. By the mid-1980s, the trafficking of child pornography within the United States was almost completely eradicated, the Justice Department notes on its website.

But with the advent of the Internet and digital technology, the crime has “exploded.”

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children saw a 5,000 percent increase in the number of images and videos of suspected child sexual abuse – close to 22 million – between 2007 and 2013.

By way of context, each child pornography search warrant yields on average some four terabytes of data. One terabyte is the rough equivalent of 1,000 full-length feature films.

Initially launched as a pilot program in 2013 and signed into law by President Obama in May, the HERO Corps was created specifically to address this problem. In their first six months on the job, military veterans working with the program helped to whittle down a two-year backlog.

“This program fit a desperate need in the investigative process,” says Tamara Spicer, a spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Tampa, Fla.

When agents comb through a home on a warrant, members of the HERO Corps sift through computers, phones, and thumb drives in search of child pornography images. Finding just one could be enough to make an arrest, but then the HERO Corps spends days or months afterward digging for more evidence.

In 11 weeks of training, including intensive computer forensics from ICE’s Cyber Crimes Center, members of the corps learn how to find images, which are often skillfully encrypted by child pornographers. It’s intense training requiring sustained mental stamina, and just 1 out of 4 military veterans who apply makes the cut.

The idea came from the National Association to Protect Children, which reached out to US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). “You’ve got these highly trained SOCOM guys that want to be in the worst places in the world and want to do something meaningful. They said, ‘Let’s take that energy and bring it to the fight against child exploitation,’ ” says Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for ICE.

On graduation day, there was an acknowledgment of the mental toll that the work can take.

“This is a tough job,” Junor said at the ceremony. “Take care of yourselves – take care of each other.”

It’s a mandate the recruits have taken to heart since their military days.

Gaertner himself had been wounded while on his third deployment to Afghanistan. The marines tasked with clearing routes for American military convoys were inexperienced and mainly “trained as tankers, not combat engineers,” he said. “I just didn’t feel safe having them go over without me.”

It was a mission the young marine loved. “It’s like Christmas every single time you find one – it’s like the gift of a life.”

When he first heard about the HERO program, however, his first response was “No, thanks,” he says. “I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do this.’ The way they explained the whole child porn thing – I didn’t know if I could handle it.”

Then he let the idea sink in. “I looked into it and thought maybe this would be the right fit – to find a way back into serving my country.”

He says he wasn’t wrong about the difficult images he must confront on a daily basis. “I’ve seen worse things show up on my computer screen than I’ve witnessed in combat overseas.”

It’s the main reason ICE needs agents in this field – not many people want to do this work. But officials reasoned that military veterans could bring some special skills to bear.

“They’re mentally strong. They’ve seen some horrible things, but these are also people who have the ability to compartmentalize,” says Ms. Bennett.

This is true, says retired Staff Sgt. Nathan Cruz, who served for a decade with the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers, as a helicopter crew chief.

“In the Special Operations community we deploy constantly – every 90 days you learn to flip the switch,” he says. “You come home and be a dad, and put aside whatever you did, whatever you saw, during deployment. That’s a skill you acquire – we can separate those feelings. We can isolate those feelings.”

But these skills do not come easily. So before starting computer forensics courses, the military veterans attend three weeks of training provided by the National Association to Protect Children. With a social worker on hand, the vets learn about child abuse and trauma, and how to cope with stress.

Through this training, Staff Sgt. Dahlia Luallen learned about herself, too, as a child who had suffered abuse. As a high school math teacher, she turned down a job working with gifted children, finding herself drawn to the troubled kids. “I looked at what I’d been through and thought, ‘If you have somebody to really be there for you – one person – it can really help.’ ”

Ms. Luallen enlisted in the Army to become a tank electronics specialist, and loved mentoring the young soldiers she led. “My soldiers were like the kids I taught in high school.”

When a lingering foot fracture forced her out of the Army last year, the HERO program filled a void. Luallen was short on details in the beginning. “ ‘Saving children’ was the only thing I remembered,” she says. “But off the bat, I wanted to do it – it had to do with saving kids.”

Luallen was part of the first HERO class to include female veterans, and she believes she brings an important perspective to the work. “You put yourself in that perspective where that could be my kid,” she says. “Also, what I’d been through as a young lady, you think, ‘These guys are still out there. And I have to find them.’ ”

It is the tracking down of the criminals – and the effort to rescue child victims – that makes the emotionally draining job worth it, says Cruz, who was part of the program’s first pilot class, which graduated in October 2013.

“People ask me, ‘How do you do it?’ My answer is that pedophiles are worse than the Taliban,” he says. “At least the Taliban is fighting a country that has an army that can defend itself. The pedophiles are targeting innocent kids that cannot do anything to defend themselves.”

For Shannon Krieger, an Army Ranger who deployed every year between 2001 and 2010 before a helicopter skid landed on his arm during an operation, the need for the work makes the demands of the work bearable.

“I can put away anybody who’s watching this [stuff] – and that far outweighs any problem I might have in my psyche about whether I can handle the images,” he says. “It’s almost as good as the stuff I’ve done in the Army, and I think that’s probably more than you could ask for – being able to replicate that sense of service.”

Gaertner participated in a recent bust that helped take down a child pornography ring with 130 victims and 28,000 images that the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children had never cataloged.

Mr. Krieger recalls recently being able to track down a child who had been exploited in a number of pornography films. He found him by watching films and then doing image searches on social media. The abuse “was all going on when he was 13 or 14.” By this time, he was 18 or 20.

“When I ID’d the kid, my heart stopped,” Krieger says.

When they located the young man, he denied that he was the child in the videos. Then he expressed concern about what his parents’ reaction would be. “Then he was like, ‘This hasn’t affected me at all.’ ”

Krieger wondered if he had done the right thing. “Did I just dredge up a bunch of reminders for him?” he recalls thinking. “Did I do more harm than good? I still wonder about that sometimes.”

But locating the child also opened the door to help, should the now-young adult want it. “Now at least it’s out there, and he has access to assets in place for that.”

And the predator could be sent to jail. But that means retrieving the evidence prosecutors need – often tough work, since child pornographers can be adept at covering their tracks.

For this reason, the veteran trainees are put through the equivalent of a six-month computer forensics course in two weeks.

The recruits’ military training helps, Cruz says. “That’s one thing – we learn fast,” he says. “We don’t quit, and we complete the mission no matter what.”

In his class of 18, they would go to their courses for eight hours a day, hit the gym, take a shower, then study until 1 or 2 in the morning, Cruz says.

As a special operator who spent most of his career in the field, Krieger found the computer forensics instruction particularly humbling. “When you’re an operator, you’re at the top of the food chain. It’s empowering,” he says. During the classes, many of his classmates were far more advanced in cyberwork than he was.

“But we don’t leave a fallen comrade behind, so whoever is struggling, we help,” Cruz says.

Once they finish training and fan out to field offices across the country, the veterans stay in touch, meeting up for occasional reunions and through a blog they created.

Gaertner says he has found the camaraderie he has missed since leaving the service. He even helped a double amputee, who participated as a skier in the Paralympics, begin planning for his life after athletics: his friend Gabriel Martinez.

“I sent Martinez all the information and everything” for the HERO program, he says. “He just signed up for it.”

 
 
 

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