Thursday, December 14, 2017
News Roundup

Tampa's HERO program enlists wounded veterans in fight against child porn

TAMPA — An unopened packet of Skittles sits on the desk where Breanna Hicks works.

It's not always Skittles. Sometimes it's Hot Tamales or peanut M&M's.

"It keeps me pepped up."

The sugary treat helps the 26-year-old former Marine from DeLand get through the hundreds of graphic images of child pornography she sifts through each day to collect digital evidence that will help law enforcement officers prosecute sex offenders.

Hicks is the first female intern in a program that trains wounded veterans in computer forensics. It's called the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child-Rescue Corps, or HERO.

Hicks was serving in Afghanistan in 2012 when she dislocated her shoulder practicing martial arts. She was sent home and enrolled at Valencia College in Orlando, where she met the HERO intern who introduced her to the program — Geovanny Perez, 34 of Orlando.

At first, she wasn't so sure about the idea. Even glimpsing child pornography seemed repulsive, let alone working with it on a regular basis. But then she thought about her eight nieces and nephews. The oldest is 8, the youngest 2 months.

"That kind of struck home," she said.

She had to leave the Marines early after 4½ years, but she still felt like a warrior. She needed a new mission and saw a chance to protect her homeland through the program.

"Our job is to take what we can to save a life or put a guy or girl away," she said.

How HERO grew

The HERO program was conceived in 2008 by brothers John and James Melia. John founded the veterans group Wounded Warriors, a Jacksonville-based organization in the midst of reorganization after national media reports about its spending. James was an FBI agent who specialized in child exploitation.

The HERO program drew the interest of government and private groups that now have joined in the effort — the nonprofit National Association to Protect Children, or PROTECT; U.S. Homeland Security Investigations; and the Tampa-based U.S. Special Operations Command.

PROTECT pushed the idea as a way to impress upon Congress the need to step up the fight against child pornography, said Grier Weeks, former executive director of the nonprofit organization.

"Most people really don't want to hear the horrific things being done to children," Weeks said. "But they do want to hear about veterans on a new battlefield."

In 2013, after meeting with PROTECT and SOCom, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agreed to establish a one-year internship program for veterans interested in helping law enforcement. ICE gave the nonprofit three months to train veterans.

PROTECT, which relies heavily on donations, quickly raised the money needed for computers, room and board, and training to get the program off the ground. It costs $35,000 to train one of the veterans and each recruiting class starts with 24. But all are volunteers. Some don't make it through because they cannot afford to spend the time required for the work, Weeks said.

"There's no limit to how many children could be rescued with more resources," he said. "It's time now for the federal government to do more and that includes paying these interns and providing the equipment at least."

The nonprofit provides computers for the veterans and works with other nonprofits to get them gas cards, moving fees, when necessary, and stipends during the 10-month internship.

Training for veterans

Veterans in the program receive four weeks of training about child exploitation through PROTECT and six weeks of computer forensics training before they start the internship.

Then they go to work on cases with special agents from Homeland Security Investigation, processing digital media, conducting forensic analysis, locating child victims and preparing detailed reports for prosecutions, said Tamara Spicer, an ICE spokeswoman.

Each intern works eight hours a day, 30 to 40 hours a week, sitting before a computer in a cubicle at a South Tampa office building that also houses a local ICE operation. Some have lost both legs. Most still are undergoing physical therapy for their injuries.

The program started in Tampa and has expanded to locations nationwide, with a high concentration of them in Florida and Texas — states with a large veteran population.

ICE doesn't track the number of children who might be helped by the program, said Weeks, because of the time it takes for criminal cases to work their way through the justice system.

But wherever HERO interns join the effort, case backlogs are cut in half, Weeks said.

Hicks, the intern, said she saw her first graphic images of child pornography during her last week of training. The work is hard to stomach. The photos are tough, the videos even worse. She mutes the volume. She takes breaks.

"It's best to just walk away. Take a moment and come back."

At these times, she goes to the gym across the hall and lifts weights. This helps push out the images and clears her mind, she said.

"The things that we see and people we arrest are people you wouldn't expect. It's a coach, it's a teacher. You never know."

She'll go back to her desk, munch on some candy and get back to work.

"I just want to be able to make a difference no matter what I do."

Contact Ariana Figueroa at [email protected] ot (813) 226-3350. Follow @ArianaLFigueroa.

     
 
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