By Natalie Bobadilla
SAN ANTONIO, TX — Ill and injured veterans are using their skills and mindset to hunt the enemy in a battlefield much closer to home.
Through the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative (HERO) Child-Rescue Corps, wounded veterans are given the opportunity to chase the bad guys and save lives once again. Only now instead of carrying rifles, they carry laptops and external hard drives.
The HERO program is a joint project of the National Association to Protect Children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and U.S. Special Operations Department of Defense.
The HERO Corps. was created as a pilot program in 2013 with the primary goal of training wounded veterans in forensic analysis, digital media and law enforcement techniques to help fight against child sexual exploitation.
On May 29, the program was authorized through Senator John Cornyn’s (R-TX) Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act.
“We should all celebrate the fact that Republicans and Democrats can come together to help defeat human trafficking,” Cornyn said.
The senator met with local law enforcement leaders to discuss the program. HSI Acting Special Agent Harry Jimenez pointed out that advancement in technology and social media makes it’s easier for predators to go after children.
“Thousands of criminals participate globally in child sexual exploitation every day, they have a market place and their product is nothing but child pornography,” Jimenez said. “Research shows that at least 55 percent of these predators are hands-on, meaning they can touch the children, they’re close to them and they live in your neighborhoods.”
As criminals become more sophisticated in their methods of victimizing and exploiting children, Assistant Chief of San Antonio Police Department Jose Bañales said they too must adapt their tactics.
“The HERO program is the latest weapon we are proud of,” Bañales said. “Who better to defend our children from predators than members of our military?”
Once accepted into the HERO program, veterans go through four weeks of training on child exploitation, a six-week computer forensics training course and then participate in a 10 month internship at an HSI field office.
According to Jimenez, once the veterans graduate they are completely embedded in the program and there is no difference between a special agent in computer forensics and a HERO graduate.
One of those graduates is Roxanne Fregoso, who served in the navy fleet and was deployed in the Middle East during Operation Freedom.
The wounded vet said that being in the Navy equipped her with the mental fortitude to go through the HERO program.
“In the military we learn how to adapt and how to cope in different environments,” Fregos said. “Knowing that I was going to save children is what prompted me to say I wanted to do this program.”
In 2014, HSI was able to identify 1,036 victims on a national level and arrest 2,151 predators.