WASHINGTON – An elite team of U.S. military professionals will soon be taking to a new battlefield with an urgent mission: to locate and rescue American children from sexual abuse and human trafficking.
The first 17 members of the H.E.R.O. Child-Rescue Corps are now undergoing intensive training at Homeland Security Investigation’s (HSI) Cyber Crime Center outside Washington, D.C. They’ll join HSI field offices in November as human exploitation rescue operatives, or HEROs, hunting child predators and rescuing children in danger.
The unprecedented team is drawn from the ranks of America’s special operations community, as well as warriors from all other branches of the military. Sixteen of the men also hold another unique status: they were wounded in the service of their country and are now returning to battle.
“There are hundreds of thousands of children in the United States who could be rescued tomorrow from sexual abuse if we dedicated the law enforcement resources,” says Grier Weeks, executive director of National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT). “There’s a war going on against American children. We’re not sending in child advocates, we’re sending special operations forces.”
ICE Acting Director John Sandweg said HERO combat veterans are just the people those children need. “Like many of our ICE employees who have served in the military, these veterans have demonstrated courage, compassion and commitment. These qualities are essential in those who seek to protect and rescue children.”
The H.E.R.O. Corps is a joint project of the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Upon completion of initial training in mid-October, the HEROs will join HSI field offices across the U.S. for a one-year internship leading to employment in law enforcement.
The H.E.R.O. Corps began work in August at ORNL, famed site of the World War II Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. There they received a month of intensive training from Weiss Child Rescue and Protection Technology Center, a program of PROTECT. The Weiss Center, established in early 2013 with a gift from Los Angeles philanthropist Debbie Weiss, funded development of the HERO initiative.
“This project will unleash the talent and determination of men and women who have demonstrated incredible commitment and valor,” said retired Army Master Sgt. Rich Robertson of ORNL’s International Security and Analysis Division. Robertson, known as “HERO #1″ within the program, is a former special operator who spearheaded recruitment of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) to the H.E.R.O. Corps.
SOCOM’S leadership embraced both the mission of protecting children and its potential as a way for wounded, ill and injured soldiers to transition back to purpose-driven careers. “The HERO program represents a great first step …” said Brigadier Gen. Richard Keene, USSOCOM assistant deputy commander, “but we must continue to expand our partnerships with other government agencies and organizations within the private sector to ensure we fully honor our commitment to our veterans.”
Equipment for the H.E.R.O. Corps has been provided by PROTECT, through generous private sector support.
High performance computers were donated by CDW Corporation, Moose International and the Safe Surfin’ Foundation.
According to ABC 13 news in Lynchburg, Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown approached Safe Surfin’ about donating 19 laptop computers to HERO when he learned the program might be cut because the federal government wouldn’t pay for the computers due to sequestration.
Specialized forensic tools and additional equipment were donated by Digital Intelligence, AccessData, Guidance Software, Western Digital Foundation, as well as companies such as Stellar of Jacksonville and Cherokee Distributing of Knoxville. Thousands of PROTECT members also made the project possible, along with foundations including the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Plough Foundation, the Haslam Family Foundation, and the Assisi Foundation.
“These generous Americans stepped forward to ensure our HEROs showed up for battle with the equipment they needed,” said Weeks. “The HEROs are deeply grateful and will repay that generosity by taking those tools and saving children with them.”
More information about the H.E.R.O. Child-Rescue Corps can be found online at herocorps.net.