Disabled Veterans Wage Fight Against Child Porn and Exploitation

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The third class of the HERO Corps graduates.
The third class of the HERO Corps graduated on Friday, June 19, 2015. The graduating ceremony was held at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Headquarters in Washington. There were a total of 22 graduates. (Josh Denmark/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Former Navy corpsman Redmond Ramos built a successful career in civilian life and even competed on CBS' "Amazing Race" after losing a leg in Afghanistan. But the sense of mission and being part of a dedicated team he felt in the military was still missing.

"I really was proud of being a realtor, proud of everything I did after the military, but the last time I felt that I was really helping people was when I was a combat medic, when I was a corpsman," Ramos said in an interview Tuesday.

"When I heard about this program, when I heard I'd have an opportunity to save children, I mean it gives me chills now to think that's going to be me," he said. "It's not just that I wanted to do this mission; I felt that I needed to do this mission. It immediately hit my brain and heart that this will allow me to feel that I'm living with a purpose again."

On Friday, Ramos will be one of 23 interns, including nine female veterans, to graduate from HERO Corps, the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative program for wounded, ill or injured service members who will then have "the chance to continue serving their country on a new battlefield -- the fight against child predators," Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Deputy Director Patrick J. Lechleitner said in a press release.

Ramos will be assigned to the ICE/Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) office in Denver to assist field agents using his training in computer forensics to build cases against sex traffickers and rescue the children they prey upon.

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Following 13 weeks of initial training, Ramos and the other graduates will continue with one-year internships, including nine months of mentoring by a computer forensics agent at field offices nationwide.

The HERO Corps began as a pilot program in 2013 with recruit referrals mainly from U.S. Special Operations Command. The goal was training forensics specialists in disassembling suspect computers, imaging hard drives, running forensic software to index data, and preparing that data for analysis by investigative agents.

President Barack Obama made the HERO Corps a formal government program by signing the HERO Act in 2015, and Congress strengthened the program through better funding under the Abolish Human Trafficking Act of 2017.

Since its inception in 2013, more than 160 veterans have gone through the HERO program, and about 80% of them are still working for ICE/HSI, said Chris Moore, program manager for HERO Corps.

The program has changed a lot from its beginnings when it essentially relied on referrals from Special Operations Command, Moore said.

"SOCOM would select people that were getting medicaled out" for combat wounds, Moore said, adding that the eligibility rules have changed significantly to allow only applicants with an honorable discharge, no criminal history and a disability rating of any kind from the Department of Veterans Affairs. "It does not have to be a combat injury," he said.

The biggest change has come in terms of pay. Previously, the interns were unsalaried volunteers until they were formally hired. But now, they are paid at the rate of a government employee GS-5 to GS-7, or $30,000 to $37,000, Moore said.

Special Operations Command is still assisting in referrals, and three SOCOM veterans are in the current graduating class -- one from Delta Force, one from Air Force pararescue, and one from Marine Special Operations Command, he said.

Satisfaction of Locking Up Those Who Abuse Kids

As a hospital mate third class, Redmond Ramos was assigned to Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, in the Sangin area of Afghanistan's southwestern Helmand province.

Sangin was one of the deadliest and most heavily mined areas for U.S. and British troops during the war, and it was a place where Marines quickly learned to be careful when they sought cover under fire to avoid the ever-present improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

On March 26, 2011, "We were on a patrol when a Marine from the same company, different squad, stepped on an IED," Ramos said. "Our squad ran over to give help. Unfortunately, when we were running over to provide assistance to them, I ended up stepping on a separate IED."

The Marines called for a helicopter medevac, "but the helicopter got shot at so we had to wait a while longer. I was saved, and the other Marine was saved. It was a bad day, but it could've been much worse if we didn't have a great team around us," he said.

"Part of me knew right away" that he would probably lose the leg, "but part of me was still shocked when I found out officially," Ramos said. When he was told about the damage he'd suffered, "I opted for amputation. It wasn't healing."

"In the military, I was put in a position where maybe I could save a life," and now he will have the opportunity to rescue children from predators, Ramos said.

There's also the satisfaction of helping to build cases that result in jail terms for sex traffickers, said former Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Nathan Cruz, 42, one of the first to join the HERO Corps who was honored in Tampa, Florida, at the 2019 Viva Tampa Bay Hispanic Heritage Awards Ceremony as a "Hispanic Military Hero."

"It's a program that opened doors and helped me get back in society," said Cruz, who joined the HERO Corps in 2013.

"In the Army, you have a target, and you put all your resources on that target," he said. Now, he has multiple targets as he assists in running down the traffickers through computer forensics work.

He told of a case in 2015 when a suspect was arrested on allegations of human trafficking. "We started to do forensics on his computer" and found images of girls aged 14 and 15.

Cruz resolved that "we need to get this guy and put him behind bars."

"We were able to identify more than 14 girls and found all of them in seven different states," he said. The rescued girls provided testimony to back up charges against the trafficker, leading to his guilty plea, Cruz added. 

"He will never see daylight again."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related: These Marines Lost Legs in Afghanistan and Now Hunt Child Predators

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