They've already fought for our country overseas. Now, some elite warriors are re-training to defeat an enemy here in this country that is threatening our children's innocence.
Across the country, more than a dozen men who used to be part of the United States military have now joined the HERO Child-Rescue Corps. HERO is an acronym which stands for Human Exploitation Rescue Operative. The program is a non-paid internship designed for wounded, injured, and ill veterans to re-train and help law enforcement in the fight against child pornography and exploitation.
FOX 13 was grated rare access when two HEROs working with Homeland Security Investigations in the Tampa field office and one from Orlando served a search warrant on a home in Polk County. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Polk County Sheriff's Office took the lead and removed several laptop computers from the home.
Justin Gaertner and David Blau sat side-by-side dismantling the hard drives looking for evidence. It didn't take long for these two HEROs to find pictures and videos showing children being sexually exploited.
The suspect, Edgar Villegas, was identified, arrested, and charged with multiple counts of possession child pornography.
"It's sickening what you see," said Blau, "But you're helping somebody's kids. And I hope if it were my kids, somebody would be willing to help them as well."
Gaertner lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq and he also finds the work necessary and rewarding. "It's my way of getting back and kicking down doors again, I guess you could say."
Nathan Cruz was a helicopter crew chief injured fighting overseas and is now living in Orlando training as HERO. "I'm not done serving my country, so I think this is a good way for us to continue serving our country."
The program was launched by a non-profit group called PROTECT.
"They were hunting the enemy last year in Iraq and Afghanistan, now they can't do that so they can refocus to help children here in the United States," said Mike Kennedy, the director of law enforcement and military affairs for PROTECT.
The organization says there are 17 HEROs placed across the nation and the aim is to recruit and place 200 over the next five years.
PROTECT pays for the specialized computer training the HERO interns receive before being placed in the field. Kennedy says it's a win-win because when it comes to crimes against children the biggest backlog for law enforcement is computer forensics.
The HEROs hope their experience and training will lead to a full-time work in federal, state, or local law enforcement.
Sue McCormick, special agent in charge of the Tampa field office, is impressed by what she's seen so far by the HEROs working in her office.
"We're going to do everything in our power to get these people jobs," she pledged.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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