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Wounded Warriors Train to Combat Child Predators Online

One retired Marine is using his battlefield training that helped him track terrorists in Afghanistan to find child predators back home.

Justin Gaertner joined the Marine Corps just days after graduating from J.W. Mitchell High School in New Port Richey. In five years, he did three tours, two of them in Afghanistan.

He was serving as a combat engineer, sweeping for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), when he was severely wounded.

Credit Courtesy of Justin Gaertner
U.S. Marine Justin Gaertner in his dress uniform after his military career ending injury from an IED.

“Honestly, I thought that life was over. When I got blown up in Afghanistan, I was like this is it I’m done,” Gaertner said. “I didn’t think I was going to live. I didn’t think I was going to walk again. I didn’t think I would ever do a tenth of the things I’ve done since I lost my legs.”

Justin lost both his legs and has other permanent injuries, but he has since become a world-class athlete with five gold medals in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games held this July in Tampa. And he recently cycled across America with a team of wounded veterans in 7 days, 12 hours and 21 minutes.

“The way it seems, I’ve done more things without my legs than I did with my legs,” Gaertner said. “I never thought that I would get the chance to walk again or get the chance to do something as great as being a part of the HERO Corps ever again.”

The HERO Corps is an acronym for the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Corps. It is a pilot program that is training wounded veterans to track down online child sexual predators and pornographers.

Justin is one of 17 wounded veterans from Special Operations currently training at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He’s learning computer forensic analysis and digital evidence collection to identify and rescue child victims of sexual abuse and online sexual exploitation.

“It’s just like being back in country. I mean, you’re using the same mindset to track one terrorist and moving to track a different terrorist because that’s how I view a pedophile or child pornographers,” Gaertner said.

Credit Courtesy of Justin Gaertner
Justin Gaertner in Afghanistan.

The HERO Corps training is as rigorous as Gaertner’s Marine boot camp which required physical endurance, but this training requires mental toughness he said.

“It’s hard to mentally deal with what we’re dealing with here, because of the images and video that we’re viewing,” Gaertner said. “I mean what’s going on out there, the normal average American doesn’t realize how bad child exploitation is. The way I see it is I might be looking at this stuff everyday but the outcome of it is that I’m preserving our children’s future and the good thing about it is I can save a child’s life.”

A chance to save a life, to serve again, and to use his analytical skills developed on the battlefield drives Gaertner. He said that’s why the pilot HERO Corps targeted wounded warriors from  Special Operations Command and the Marines.

“The skills that we had on the battlefield we can put onto a new battlefield and that’s what it’s all about, getting back in the fight, Because everything I’ve learned about tracking down terrorists over in Afghanistan, I’m trying to use the same mindset here back on the home front,” Gaertner said.

Gaertner will return from his training in a few weeks to Tampa for a 9-month internship at the office of Homeland Security Investigations.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.