It takes a special person to serve in the military. It takes a special person to come to terms with and overcome profound injuries caused in the line of duty. It takes a special person to track down child pornographers. It takes unbreakable men.
Aptly dubbed “HERO,” the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative is being developed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Special Operations Command in conjunction with the National Association to Protect Children. The idea grew out of a chance conversation between a child advocate and an FBI agent about equipping wounded elite soldiers with high-tech computer forensics training and law enforcement skills to assist federal agents in their fight against online child sexual exploitation.
The intensive training kicks off with four weeks at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, followed by six weeks of computer forensics training in Virginia and an embedded internship assisting HSI special agents with criminal cases and prosecutions.
Oskar Zepeda is one of these men. The former Ranger sharpshooter and U.S. Army Special Operations staff sergeant served 9 deployments in Afghanistan before being injured by an enemy grenade. He barely survived, but he is thankful that his warrior instincts are now being used to fight for children. Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles, says these are just the type of people needed for this work.
These veterans are highly-motivated Type- A individuals who understand not only what it takes to get the job done, but who are already oriented to service to country and eager to serve,” says Arnold. “These types of investigations require a certain aptitude and very expensive training. Before this program, our agents with both skill sets worked in forensics for three years, which meant our cops were not on the streets.”
Cooper says the demand for child pornography has never been higher, and the internet has created a huge market. Pornographers hide behind the anonymity of the internet; tracking them requires tenacious, patient work. Zepeda was one of 16 former special-operations soldiers trained for this program, which is set to graduate its second set of former soldiers. Zepeda is grateful for the chance to serve on a new battlefield.