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Human trafficking victims are often mistaken for criminals. The U.S. Special Operations Command’s Human Exploitation Rescue Operative, or HERO, Child-Rescue Corps, partners with federal law enforcement agencies and the National Association to Protect Children in order to rescue victims of human trafficking. (Photo Credit: Department of Defense photo by William Selby)

Marshall, Crystal D Ms CTR USA OCPA

WASHINGTON – January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, an awareness campaign focused on an issue the Defense Department combats year-round with special teams committed to stopping such crimes worldwide.

The Human Exploitation Rescue Operative - Child-Rescue Corps is a program developed by the U.S. Special Operations Command in partnership with the Warrior Care Program-Career Transition, the National Association to Protect Children, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Col. Kimberly Moros, chief of SOCOM’s career transition services.

“The HERO Child-Rescue Corps Program is designed for wounded, injured and ill transitioning service members and veterans who receive training in high-tech computer forensics and law enforcement skills to assist federal agents in the fight against online child sexual exploitation,” she said.

“Upon successful completion of the program, HERO interns will have the knowledge, skills and experience to apply for careers with federal, state and local police agencies and other organizations in the field of computer forensics.”

Since 2013, Moros added, more than 130 veterans and transitioning service members have entered the HERO program. Of the successful graduates, 74 have been offered careers in federal law enforcement and another 31 are in internships.

“HEROs and HERO interns now make up over 25 percent of the Homeland Security computer forensics workforce,” said Robert Kurtz, unit chief for HERO at Homeland Security Investigations.

The teams are battling a troubling problem. Human trafficking includes the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a person to provide labor, services or sex. Victims include children, and elderly men and women. These violations of basic human rights are happening here in America as well as overseas, explained Linda Dixon, program manager for the DOD Combating Trafficking in Persons Office.

“Preventing these crimes is a duty the DOD takes seriously as we do in other situations that bring harm to our nation,” Dixon said. “It is a global concern, and our goal is to educate every member of DOD on how to recognize and report human trafficking in the U.S., as well as around the world.”

The three most common forms of trafficking are forced labor, prostitution and child soldiering.

Moros said the idea behind the HERO Corps is a simple one.

“When it comes to hunting criminals who prey on the innocent, who better than our nation’s most highly trained military veterans?” she posed. “Much of today’s human trafficking and child sexual exploitation is technology facilitated. Offenders utilize the internet and digital technologies to coordinate their activity, advertise, share information and hide evidence. HEROs receive training in counter-child exploitation as well as digital forensics and victim identification. And they are then embedded with federal law enforcement.”

She said the HERO Child-Rescue Corps saves children in several ways. “As law enforcement first responders, they are at every crime scene, searching for critical clues that might provide evidence for an arrest or to find a victim,” Moros said.

Back at the forensic lab, the HERO is the lead digital investigator, searching out clues that can lead to organized criminal rings, evidence of sexual assault or production of child abuse imagery, she said.

“In many cases, it has been the relentless focus and military mindset that has allowed HEROs to go beyond the digging that might be done in traditional law enforcement to actually find a victim,” she added.

Kurtz said federal law enforcement is just beginning to track trafficking enforcement statistics. In 2016, Homeland Security Investigations identified and rescued 820 known child victims from sexual exploitation.

“Unfortunately, the real number of victims is undoubtedly many times greater,” Moros said. “However, as a major segment of the digital forensic workforce, and one especially dedicated to combating child sexual exploitation and trafficking, they (HEROs) have been instrumental in working hundreds of those cases and bringing more and more of these criminals to justice.”