Veterans' new mission: hunt child predators
WASHINGTON — Oskar Zepeda has had pretty much one mission in his life: kill or capture.
Having served nine tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he now has a new target — child predators.
Zepeda, 29, is part of a 17-member class of veterans trained in computer forensics and sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices. They aren't paid, and there's no guarantee that they'll have a full-time job when their one-year stint ends.
But the interns are finding the purpose of their new mission outweighs financial considerations.
“I love challenges. And I have a family of my own,” said Zepeda, whose military career was cut short by a hand grenade and the 25 operations that followed. “I feel I'm still serving my country and protecting my family at the same time.”
For Shannon Krieger, who was in the Army and is now assigned to an ICE office in New Orleans, “This was a new fight I could sink my teeth into. That's what really I was looking for. I wasn't just going to take a job so I can have a paycheck.”
Federal officials say a children's lobbying group, PROTECT, pitched the idea of incorporating wounded veterans in the fight against child pornography. ICE Special Agent Patrick Redling said the agency, in which veterans account for 30 percent of the workforce, ran with the idea.
“They built their career upon fighting for this country and keeping citizens of this country safe,” Redling said. “What better (than) to get somebody already with that mindset into a program where it's another battlefield, very similar, but you're keeping our children safe? You're taking predators off the street.”
The agency relied on the U.S. Special Operations Command to get the word out to wounded service members transitioning out or out of the military. The veterans were given about 11 weeks of intensive computer and legal training before being assigned to an ICE field office.
Even though they're not getting paid by ICE, the majority of the team members are receiving disability compensation. Many get a monthly stipend from the Department of Veterans Affairs for educational expenses.
In exchange, they're gaining expertise in computer forensics, a skill that is in high demand with law enforcement agencies and should lend itself to job offers once the internship is completed.
In general, the veterans work in a lab and scour computers and flash drives that agents in the field confiscate when conducting a search warrant. The veterans have two priorities: analyze the evidence to assist in the prosecution of a suspect and help determine whether there are children in harm's way who need to be rescued.
The veterans occasionally are called on to help agents carry execute search warrants.
Zepeda said that's how he spent his first day on the job.
“We went on a raid, and it was almost like I never left the Army,” he said. “It was like, ‘I'm ready. Let's do it.' ”
When it comes to child pornography, a child is defined as any person younger than 18. The Department of Justice said 2,331 defendants were charged in federal court in the past fiscal year with producing, distributing or receiving child pornography.
During the previous four years, the number of federal defendants charged with child pornography offenses ranged from 2,012 to 2,254.
The veterans say they've seen what Krieger called the “real dark side of what humankind can do.”
“I'm talking about young kids, 18-month-olds, toddlers. This is some of the most horrible stuff I couldn't conceive of imagining, and I'm looking at it on a daily basis,” Krieger said.
ICE Special Agent Brian Widener said part of the interview process was spelling out for the veterans the types of materials they would have to view. Each veteran was assigned someone who will check on them at least once a month to make sure they are doing OK.
The veterans said their combat experience has proven to be an asset when it comes to dealing with the emotional toll of the job.
Zepeda said he tries not to think too much about what he sees on the job.
“You just move on,” he said. “You know what you're seeing, but you're not getting personal with it.”
Justin Gaertner, a Marine Corps combat engineer who lost his legs in Afghanistan serving as a lead sweeper for roadside bombs, said he had to think long and hard before accepting the internship. He worried that the work could make the mental aspects of his recovery more difficult.
In the end, he said, the satisfaction of possibly saving a child's life or putting a child predator behind bars outweighed the negative considerations.
“My time got cut short in the service. I wanted to continue serving my country, and this was my way to do that,” said Gaertner, 24, the youngest member of the group.
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