Justin Gaertner was assisting a fellow wounded Marine during his third deployment in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device took both of his legs in 2010.
Come next week, he and 13 other wounded veterans are slated to become federal agents in the fight against child-sex crimes.
They are the first graduating class of the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child-Rescue Corps. On Tuesday, the veterans participated in a child rescue retreat in Memphis, Tennessee, where they shared their experiences and discussed tactics to apprehend child-pornography producers and human traffickers.
Grier Weeks, executive director for the National Association to Protect Children, explained that without the contributions of Memphis organizations, this new program would not have gotten off the ground.
“We don’t take government grants. We relied on money donated to us from groups like the Plough and Assisi Foundations,” Weeks said. “This project puts wounded warriors in a new battlefield.
“In 2013, when we presented the idea to top officials at Homeland Security, they said ‘Yes.’ It was the fastest any of us have ever seen the federal government move.”
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Oak Ridge Tennessee, trained the veterans in criminal justice and solidified their child-protecting objective, Weeks said. Then, it was off to the Cyber Crimes Center, just outside of Washington D.C., for digital forensics training. After certification, the H.E.R.O.s interned for 10 months with Homeland Security Investigation’s Bureau.
On Tuesday, with his service dog, Gunner, seated beside Gaertner’s two titanium-prosthetic legs, the soon-to-be cyber forensic agent explained how Homeland Security operations have taken the Florida man all over the country.
“I spent three months in New York assisting in 30 operations which lead to 80 arrests of child pornographers,” he said, while Gunner rolled on his back. “We rescued about eight children from the hands of sexual predators.”
While Gaertner, 25, helped with these arrests, the national child protection group worked toward getting the 14 veterans full-time employment. Homeland Security special agent Kevin Power mentored the H.E.R.O. Corps interns. He worked with two of them, including Gaertner, in Tampa, Fla.
“We threw them right into the fire,” Power said. “Not a class room, but real hands-on training — handing out arrest and search warrants.”
With no computer training, the veterans spent many sleepless nights studying and helping one another learn the programs, Power said. But the dedication and intelligence of the former soldiers allowed them to quickly learn the technical aspects of the job.
“Their military discipline makes them really good for this work,” Power said. “Computer forensics is meticulous and methodical. These guys don’t cut corners, and they don’t question the ordered process you have to go through every time.”
Three of the H.E.R.O.s will work with Powers in Tampa after their graduation, including Gaertner. The hardest part of the job, Powers said, is being exposed to the child exploitation on regular basis.
Originally reluctant to enter the program, Gaertner said his Special Operations Command advocate convinced him to join after explaining the benefits of the program.
“The opportunity to put people behind bars, who hurt children, is a big reason why I choose to do this,” Gaertner said. “I have an 8-year-old sister who I want to protect. ”