We throw the word hero around a little too casually these days. Here are some men who earn the title.
When we don’t face a daily struggle for survival, we like to test our mettle and endurance. For some of us, it is how we measure ourselves, to know if we are better than we were in the past, and how we might face future challenges. But there are some strengths we hope never to have to test. A marathon is twenty-six miles; the human body can store enough energy for about twenty. Those last six miles are the ones that count. But you know that the race has an end. It takes an inner strength to persevere when there seems to be no hope in sight, and you are running for a horizon that you may never reach.
We throw the word hero around a little too casually these days, but men who are grievously wounded in battle, and then stand up to fight one of the few universally agreed-upon evils in the world are true heroes in my book. These are veterans recruited from the special operations community for training in identifying and rescuing children victimized by online predators, a joint project between the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
They are known as Human Exploitation Rescue Operatives: The H.E.R.O. Corps.
These are soldiers forged in the crucible of elite combat training, who have survived and transcended trauma on the battlefield. They possess not only the skills and strategic mindset required to do the job, but the internal fortitude to endure a job that requires viewing images and videos of children being raped, every day. These are crimes that inspire instant revulsion, and we rarely think about the officers, social workers, and other responders who have to deal with it first hand. We recognize PTSD in the direct victims of trauma and violence, but those who find, rescue, and heal them suffer the effects as well.
Perhaps you read about the seizure in Toronto of a child porn warehouse with a public website. The videos were edited in Canada, and produced worldwide. At last count over 350 arrests were made in seven countries, and more importantly, over 400 children were rescued from the rape factories that produce this content. ICE was involved on the American side of that bust, after officers identified 283,000 images among the 45 terabytes the website offered. It is not a job many can do. And fewer still can do it for long.
One of the operatives in the H.E.R.O. Corps is Ret. Cpl Justin Gaertner, who lost both his legs to an IED while sweeping for helicopter landing zones in Afghanistan. He didn’t let his injury hold him back. He went on to win five gold medals in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, and now hunts online predators and identifies their victims for rescue, with his service dog Gunner at his side. It takes a great amount of emotional resilience to show up for a job like that every day. Gaertner steeled himself not only in combat, but with the perseverance and drive that made him a quintuple gold medalist after recovering from his battlefield injuries.
This may not be the easiest fare to swallow while you celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, but it gives us all something to be thankful for. For our own blessings, and that the H.E.R.O. Corps are out there fighting battles that we hope to never contemplate. If you would like to support the H.E.R.O. Corps, you can donate at protect.org, the website of PROTECT, the National Association to Protect Children.
–Photo Lou Bank/PROTECT. Used with permission.