Wounded Veterans Train to Combat Online Pedophiles

A photo of Justin Gaertner and his service dog Gunner during the HERO Corps training.

A photo of Justin Gaertner and his service dog Gunner during the HERO Corps training.

One retired Marine is using his battlefield training that helped him track terrorists in Afghanistan to find child predators back home.

Justin Gaertner joined the Marine Corps just days after graduating from J.W. Mitchell High School in New Port Richey. In five years, he did three tours, two of them in Afghanistan.

Justin Gaertner under fire from Taliban insurgents during his second deployment in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Justin Gaertner.

Justin Gaertner under fire from Taliban insurgents during his second deployment in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Justin Gaertner.

He was serving as a combat engineer, sweeping for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), when he was severely wounded.

“Honestly, I thought that life was over. When I got blown up in Afghanistan, I was like this is it I’m done,” Gaertner said. “I didn’t think I was going to live. I didn’t think I was going to walk again. I didn’t think I would ever do a tenth of the things I’ve done since I lost my legs.”

Justin lost both his legs and has other permanent injuries, but he has since become a world-class athlete with five gold medals in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games held this July in Tampa. And he recently cycled across America with a team of wounded veterans in 7 days, 12 hours and 21 minutes.

“The way it seems, I’ve done more things without my legs than I did with my legs,” Gaertner said. “I never thought that I would get the chance to walk again or get the chance to do something as great as being a part of the HERO Corps ever again.”

Justin Gaertner served as a combat engineer in Afghanistan where he searched for IEDs and the terrorists who made the improvised explosive devices.

Justin Gaertner served as a combat engineer in Afghanistan where he searched for IEDs and the terrorists who made the improvised explosive devices.

The HERO Corps is an acronym for the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Corps. It is a pilot program that is training wounded veterans to track down online child sexual predators and pornographers.

Justin is one of 17 wounded veterans from Special Operations currently training at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He’s learning computer forensic analysis and digital evidence collection to identify and rescue child victims of sexual abuse and online sexual exploitation.

“It’s just like being back in country. I mean, you’re using the same mindset to track one terrorist and moving to track a different terrorist because that’s how I view a pedophile or child pornographers,” Gaertner said.

The HERO Corps training is as rigorous as Gaertner’s Marine boot camp which required physical endurance, but this training requires mental toughness he said.

Justin Gaertner crossing the finish line - first in the 10K hand-cycling event during the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa.

Justin Gaertner crossing the finish line – first in the 10K hand-cycling event during the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa.

“It’s hard to mentally deal with what we’re dealing with here, because of the images and video that we’re viewing,” Gaertner said. “I mean what’s going on out there, the normal average American doesn’t realize how bad child exploitation is. The way I see it is I might be looking at this stuff everyday but the outcome of it is that I’m preserving our children’s future and the good thing about it is I can save a child’s life.”

A chance to save a life, to serve again, and to use his analytical skills developed on the battlefield drives Gaertner. He said that’s why the pilot HERO Corps targeted wounded warriors from  Special Operations Command and the Marines.

“The skills that we had on the battlefield we can put onto a new battlefield and that’s what it’s all about, getting back in the fight, Because everything I’ve learned about tracking down terrorists over in Afghanistan, I’m trying to use the same mindset here back on the home front,” Gaertner said.

Gaertner will return from his training in a few weeks to Tampa for a 9-month internship at the office of Homeland Security Investigations.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for your blog. You talk about the things I have been concerned about since I became more aware of military issues due to my partner’s interest in military history. The suicides, and the need for “Stand Downs” were big eye openers. I’ve circulated those posts often.

    Regarding the engagement of military personnel in tracking online pedophiles – That’s a very tough deployment. I understand it really twists people to look at that stuff all day – evidently police officers working in those units can’t do it for very long.

    Are you aware of how this will be managed to make sure that they are ok?

    • Justin Gaertner told me he was prepared for this kind of work – as mentally tough as it is – thanks to his training as a Marine. Your comment though is something to follow up on as he progresses in his internship. I do know that he is thankful to have a meaningful mission and a chance to continue his service to the country that got cut short by an explosive device.

      Meaningful work – a mission if you will – is what most returning veterans are seeking according to the interview’s I’ve conducted and information I’ve read. This pilot program certainly fulfills that goal.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Bobbie O’Brien

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