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Wounded warriors enter fight against child porn
A new pilot program run by the Department of Homeland Security is giving wounded warriors a chance to keep fighting on a different kind of battlefield by tracking down and bringing to justice purveyors of online child sex crimes.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Homeland Security Investigations
Before the creation of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in 2003, U.S. Customs agents investigated the disbursement of illegal child pornography — often sent by mail.
Now, HSI special agents, stationed across the country as well as internationally, work with foreign governments, Interpol and others to locate child sexual-abuse material online and support and initiate prosecution of sex-crime violators.
The agency has more than 70 offices overseas, with the ability to follow a case, rescue a victim or arrest a predator anywhere in the world.
The Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child Rescue Corps, or HERO Corps, is open to all wounded soldiers.
Officials will begin recruiting participants for the next class early in 2014. Those interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In high school, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Oskar Zepeda couldn’t wait until he was old enough to join the military.
He had grown up watching movies that fed an interest in combat and even as a young boy knew “there was no other job for me.”
He enlisted in the Army in 2004, was admitted into the ranks of its elite Rangers based at Fort Lewis and within months was in Iraq — on a team embarking on nightly missions into towns and villages to capture enemy combatants.
But what looked to all the world like a promising military career — marked by nine tours of duty in two countries over six years — ended abruptly one night inside a house in Afghanistan when a suspect Zepeda was attempting to restrain blew himself up.
The explosion shattered the right side of Zepeda’s body, ending a chapter in his life that he was not yet ready to close, but opening another that will allow him to keep fighting but on a different kind of battlefield.
Staff Sgt. Zepeda is one of 17 special-operations veterans nationwide participating in a one-year internship run by the Department of Homeland Security where he’ll use computer forensics to help track purveyors of online child pornography and sexual exploitation.
The soldiers, all with either physical or psychological wounds, are mostly all young and war-hardened — leaders who have endured the violence of war and who through vetting have convinced officials they can endure a different kind of trauma that comes with this line of work.
Participants in the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child Rescue Corps, or HERO Corps, they have been dispersed around the country; Zepeda is assigned to the Seattle office.
HERO Corps is a joint effort of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division (ICE), the Department of Defense and a range of nonprofit organizations and is aimed at supporting wounded soldiers’ transition into civilian life.
“I could no longer do what I loved to do — rappel down a rope, kick in doors or jump from airplanes,” the 29-year-old Zepeda said.
“But now I can do this.”
“This” involves working alongside special agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) helping identify online child sex violators and bringing them to justice.
Since 2003, HSI — which partners with law-enforcement agencies locally and globally to hunt child-sex criminals — has initiated more than 29,000 cases and arrested more than 10,000.
In a 2012 case, for example, local HSI investigators tracked down a Portland couple who admitted to trading videos of themselves engaged in sex acts with their own children. They pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in January.
With the rapid growth in this type of crime, “there’s a need for forensic examiners to help sift through millions and millions of megabytes of information,” said Andrew Muñoz, ICE spokesman for this region.
“With vets returning home, we looked into how our agency could contribute to not just employing them but providing training and skills that are in high demand.”
Homeland Security officials expect the pilot program, financed with $10 million in private funds, could expand over the next five years to include 200 veterans.
This inaugural class of interns — most of whom had no background in computer technology — completed 10 weeks of training in computer-forensics analysis and learned the state and federal laws applicable to child sexual exploitation.
Jim Adcock, who serves as a United States Special Operations Command, (SOCOM) advocate for wounded warriors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said the program is a good fit for these soldiers.
“Oskar had the right personality and had a drive that he wanted to do something meaningful that would make a difference — and wanted to do it now,” Adcock said.
When Adcock called to tell him about HERO, Zepeda, a married father of five, said he immediately saw the correlation.
Before, “I’d go on a mission, identify a person, capture them, prosecute them and put them away,” he said.
“Here, I’m looking online, identifying a person, catching them and putting them away. To me, it’s a second chance, another opportunity to continue serving my country and doing what I love to do.”
Tracking criminals from a computer was not what Zepeda, who is about three months from being discharged from active duty, had envisioned in those days after 9/11.
After completing basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., he applied to join the Rangers — the Army’s premier raid force. “I’d heard Rangers were the toughest thing out there, and I’ve always wanted to be with the best,” he said.
He was assigned to Fort Lewis’ storied 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment and was stoked by his first deployment to Iraq in early 2005, where he could put into practice what he had learned.
But his excitement was tempered by anxiety over the constant threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Even in a war marked by soldiers’ multiple deployments, Zepeda’s nine tours are noteworthy — and by far the most of the 17 HEROs.
But he loved it, he said. Each new tour, alternating between Iraq and Afghanistan, brought more leadership responsibilities. He’s been a rifleman, sniper, team leader, squad leader.
“I was so excited to be in charge and making the calls and being that number one man in the door,” he said. “I was in charge of the explosives, the breaches. All the stuff I was learning here I was excited to go and apply it in the field.”
As the sniper on his team, Zepeda fell from a rooftop in Afghanistan in 2008, breaking his left foot — but not before shooting the enemy, he said. Seven months later, he was back on the job.
His voice grows somber as he describes those missions where the team lost men: “You are in that helicopter at night and there’s a dead body there and it’s one of your own that you are bringing back,” he said. “It’s silent. And you can feel the pain.”
‘And that was that’
On the mission in September 2011 that ended his career, Zepeda was the squad leader for a team that had gone to capture targets in a house in Afghanistan.
A suspect “tried to make a run for the door and I restrained him, put my arms around him and he blew up.
“And that was that.”
Everyone was hit, and he remembers his men crying out in pain on the floor.
“It’s a memory you can never erase,” he said. “Every time you close your eyes you go back into that scenario,” he said. “You are there, you can smell it and taste it. You breathe it.”
It took 26 minutes for the medevac helicopter to arrive.
When Zepeda awoke three days later, his entire right side mangled, doctors were debating amputating his arm and leg. He had lost his quads, his hamstring and suffered foot and wrist drop. For six months he couldn’t walk.
Surgeons rebuilt his body, giving him a foot brace to allow him to walk normally and removing the damaged tendons in his hand so he could use it again. Through months of physical therapy, he regained his strength.
“For a while I thought I’d be able to get back,” Zepeda said, “But honestly, I think everything happens for a reason. It was time for me to end it. That was my wake-up call.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.