TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Justin Gaertner planned to make the Marine Corps his life. He served three deployments in Afghanistan, but his life took a sudden and nearly fatal turn with just one footstep. “I stepped on an IED and lost my legs,” said Gaertner.
Gaertner’s survived his injuries, but his career as a combat Marine was over. He was then approached with the idea of joining a new program with H.E.R.O. Corps.
“When I was originally approached about it they had talked about going after pedophiles and the child pornography and everything and I originally turned it down because I didn’t want to see that kind of stuff. I never even really heard of it until then,” said Gaertner.
H.E.R.O. Corps is short for “Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child-Rescue Corps.” It’s a program developed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. Combat wounded vets like Gaertner serve a one year unpaid internship learning how to go after child pornographers and pedophiles.
“You have these, these disgusting individuals that are filming and raping other children, other people’s children, infants and toddlers and in my eyes they are terrorists. You know, I was pretty good at hunting them overseas and taking them out the way we needed to and you know it’s much the same way how you hunted someone overseas is the same way we do it here,” said Gaertner.
The interns of H.E.R.O. Corps are given intensive training to understand who they are going after and how to track them down. “Everything is checked through their devices, through their computers, through the internet and they think they can get by with it or get away with it and they can’t. They’re going to get caught eventually,” said Gaertner.
Still, the images that Gaertner and others have to view in order to catch the criminals are highly disturbing. “It’s just disgusting, nothing is going to compare to what comes across those computer screens. The unfortunate thing is, once I think I’ve see the worst video or seen the worst picture, it gets even worse,” said Gaertner.
Just like in the Marines, he turns to the other members of H.E.R.O. Corps for support. “These guys right here, these guys are like my squad. it’s how I see it, like being in the military. If I have a problem or if I have an issue and I would like to talk to someone about it, you know I keep it right here. Just like in the Marines, you always try and keep stuff at the lowest level and if I’m having a hard time, if I just saw like the worst video I’ve ever seen you know I go and talk to someone and so do they,” said Gaertner.
The project has given the entire team new purpose. Joshua Turner is a combat wounded Army Veteran who is also training as part of the H.E.R.O. Corps.
“Instead of being in the Army I can be in the civilian world and have a mission of helping children,” said Turner. He sees it as his new mission in life.
“When you’re in the Army you’re built to have some sort of purpose and that purpose is a mission. When I got injured, that mission aspect kind of left me and I needed to be able to do something,” said Turner.
After spending hours and weeks working on a case, Turner says the payoff is seeing an offender placed under arrest.
“It was so difficult when I got injured, the mental aspect of everything that I had to go through and that I continue to go through with my injuries, but when I am able to put somebody away and have those handcuffs put on them and that I know they are going to be put away for a long time, all of those feelings go away because I know that all of the hard work I’ve put in to get here has been fulfilled,” he said.
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