Like many veterans, Justin Gaertner didn't know what course his life would take after he returned from Afghanistan. The Marine, who was sent home from combat in 2010 after an explosion destroyed his legs and damaged his left arm, didn't envision his service ending so soon.
Since returning home to Tampa, he has focused on building a new life. Veterans groups helped get him a new car, and they're building him a house. He kept busy working for MacDill Air Force Base as an advocate for the wounded. Still, he said, his need to serve remained.
"A lot of us weren't done serving when we were wounded," said Gaertner, 24. "We wanted to continue to serve our country."
So when he heard about a new project of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, whose objective is to turn wounded vets into crime fighters, he was instantly interested.
On Friday, following months of training, Gaertner became one of 17 wounded veterans certified for what is being dubbed the HEROs Corps. The program, officially known as the "Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child Rescue Corps," trains veterans to assist in criminal investigations of child pornography and Internet sexual exploitation.
The men, many of whom, like Gaertner, were wounded in combat, will assist special agents of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the regional offices of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) throughout the country. Their duties will be to monitor online file-sharing networks and places on the Internet where people trade child pornography.
Gaertner will be one of two vets in the program based in Tampa.
"As long as my mind and body can take it, I'll try my hardest to protect these kids," he said.
Creators of the program looked to veterans specifically, believing they likely had the right character and strength of mind for the work, which often exposes investigators to lurid and disturbing material.
"They're tough and they're strong, and you have to be tough and strong to do these investigations," said Carissa Cutrell, spokeswoman for ICE.
The program is a product of both HSI and ICE, as well as the Department of Defense and the nonprofit National Association to Protect Children. It offers a way for veterans to continue to serve when circumstances may have barred them from returning to the battlefield, Cutrell said, and fills different needs for the various agencies.
The 17 men involved in the pilot program went through seven weeks of training in computer forensic analysis and digital evidence collection at HSI's Cyber Crimes Center in Virginia. They also completed four weeks of training focused on criminal law at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
The men will work at HSI offices in 14 cities. After they begin their work, the HSI will look to recruit more vets. Eventually, they hope to expand the HEROs program to include 200 veterans, Cutrell said.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3386.