Recruiting former troops to a new fight, the Homeland Security Department swore in its inaugural class of military veterans Friday to be special operatives trained to track down child pornographers and sex abusers.
For the government, it's a chance to give veterans a meaningful job at home. The former troops, meanwhile, say they're eager to take on an enemy at home — and it's a fight they say makes perfect sense.
"I served my country for four years trying to protect our freedom, and now I want to do it again protecting children's freedom," David Blau, one of the inaugural class of 17, told The Washington Times, saying he had no doubt he wanted to take part once he found out about the program and saw the kinds of predators out there.
Mr. Blau was in the Marines from 2002-2006 and served two tours of duty in Iraq, including spearheading the entry in Fallujah in 2004. When he got out of the service, he went to work for a cable company in North Carolina and pursued a psychology degree, but jumped at the chance when he heard about what the government is calling its Hero Corps.
"I have three boys and I was not aware, like most of the population out there, what is going on — all these child predators out there and what they do," he said.
He and the other veterans trained for 11 weeks in computer forensics and will now be sent to federal investigative officials throughout the country to help U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has taken a major lead in going after child pornography.
"The goal of this initiative is to give our nation's military veterans a chance to continue to serve at home for a righteous cause," said acting Homeland Security Secretary Rand Beers. "Through this program, they are trained to fight on a new battlefield to protect the innocence of children at home and around the world."
Homeland Security officials expect to train a second class early next year and said they are looking for more veterans to sign up.
ICE has dramatically stepped up its efforts to harness both technology and the general public in going after predators.
Earlier this year the agency released Operation Predator, a mobile phone app that shares details with the public about suspects or cases where a child may be in danger. Less than two days after the app went live, it notched its first capture when tips led to the arrest of a man in Michigan who was charged with downloading child pornography.
ICE has also occasionally released photos and descriptions to the public asking for help in identifying adults believed to be abusing children.
The Hero Corps program is a partnership between the Defense Department and private sector. Homeland Security officials said the private sector is contributing $10 million over five years for training and logistics.
Mr. Blau said he completed 11 weeks of training: the first four at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where the veterans learned about child-exploitation cases and criminal law, and the final seven weeks at Homeland Security Investigations' Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, where they learned computer forensics techniques.
"Searching through a computer takes days, weeks, months. there's so much information," Mr. Blau said. "These predators have terabytes of child pornography, images and videos. Our job pretty much is to look through the computer, deep and shallow, trying to find as much information as we can to put the guys behind bars."
Sometimes they are looking for evidence to prove a case against someone in custody. Other times, they are looking for clues in the images to try to track down the producers of the pornography — and even to try to help rescue children who may be abused.
Mr. Blau said that rather than being a tough job after the trauma of war, the veterans are uniquely positioned to handle what can be a trying job, given the material they come across.
"We've been through a lot, we've been able to process and deal with what we've done already so I feel we are a strong case for individuals to do this," he said. "We have a great drive in wanting to complete the mission, which would be helping out children. Each one of us has been through a tremendous amount of trauma and seen horrific things."
He said after what he's learned, he's already talked to his own children, telling them that they can always trust him and tell him if they feel someone is acting strange or has touched them. He said predators are master manipulators, and are often relatives or close adult friends, and the only way to combat their manipulation is for parents to have good lines of communication with children.
"Like we say, it's a whole different terrorist," he said.
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