Justin Gaertner, Shannon Krieger and Kevin Leduc know how to hunt for bad guys.
The trio served at different times in different military units, but they were all at the center of the action as members of elite special forces. Gaertner, a Marine, swept roadsides for bombs in Afghanistan. Krieger, a member of the Army’s Delta Force, and Leduc, an Army Ranger, went after high-value targets in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then the unthinkable happened. Gaertner lost both legs when he stepped on an IED; Krieger was injured in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan that left him without the use of his left arm for a year and Leduc suffered fractures in a car accident while in the States between deployments that were so severe he had nine surgeries and several skin grafts.
Their promising military careers were cut short.
And the three, who had joined the military gung-ho for a mission that allowed them to serve their country, were left aimless.
It took an explosion of child exploitation and pornography online to help them find a renewed mission.
Today, the trio describe themselves as members of Homeland Security Investigations’ nerd squad.
They’ve turned in their rifles, scopes and bulletproof gear for cases full of laptops, external hard drives, USB ports and cables. They were part of the first class under a new program by Homeland Security Investigations that trains wounded service men and women to become computer forensic analysts focusing on catching child predators.
The program is expanding from the first class of 19 people in 2013 to almost 50 this year. The service members are recruited by the United States Special Operations Command, which works with wounded veterans from special operations units across all military branches, and HSI’s Cyber Crime Center.
“It’s weird because I used to be the one who kicked in the doors and threw the bangers,” Leduc, 32, says, using military speak for grenades. “But now once a house is cleared, I come in with my computer gear. I’m kind of the nerd.”.
Service members are the perfect type of people to work in child pornography because they are skilled at taking on difficult tasks, says Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children, an advocacy group that fights against child pornography. Weeks took the idea for the program, dubbed the Hero Corps, to Homeland Security Investigations, which jumped on it.
Field offices need all the help they can get because they are getting crushed by the amount of computer data that needs to be analyzed for cases, said Brian Widener, unit chief of HSI’s computer forensics unit, which trains the service members. He says his unit has seen a 30 to 40% increase over the last several years in the number of devices and digital media that need to be analyzed. For example, he said the unit analyzed 5,900 mobile devices last year compared to 4,400 the year before.
The service members, most of whom have been released from the military because of injury or illness, receive computer forensic training, then serve as unpaid interns for 10 months, working child exploitation cases. Members of the first two classes have all been offered full-time positions with HSI.
Krieger works out the New Orleans field office. The evidence of his accident is still with him. He wakes up every day with exploding pain in his elbow and walks with a limp. But since 2011, he’s lived with the regret of leaving a military career that spanned 27 years.
“The Hero Corps has done a lot to fill that hole,” he says.
“I still get to beat up the bad guys,” he says. “I just do it with a computer … I get to fight again and there is no more righteous cause than to put people in jail for hurting kids.”.
Already, these military members turned computer forensics pros are making a dent, Widener says. Three who are stationed in the Tampa field office have helped eliminate a backlog of cases there that was up to a year old.
Gaertner, 26, who was offered a permanent post with HSI in Tampa after his internship ended, is already notching high profile cases. He was the lead analyst on a case in which a Florida man was sentenced to 40 years in prison for receiving and distributing child pornography and blackmailing hundreds of teenage girls to send him nude photos of themselves.
Gaertner dug through 28,000 images on social media sites and on the man’s computers and phones to find the illicit images.
“I thought he was hiding this stuff,” he said. He found more than 130 victims, almost all 10 to 14 years old.
Gaertner says that in less than two years on the job, he’s seen things worse than what he saw or experienced in combat.
Like the time he went into a house with a search warrant and found a 75-year-old man in bed with a 4-year-old girl.
“I see the most disgusting things,” he says. “I see things I can’t unsee.”.
But the job has given him a renewed sense of purpose. “It’s given me back the life I had before I lost my legs,” he says.
He says in the military, “you know what you get into. You know you might not get back … But these children, they don’t know. When you see a toddler raped by his father, the toddler doesn’t know what’s going on. But the father knows.”.