ATLANTA — After spending years working as a Marine Corps intelligence specialist tracking down enemies abroad, Jeremy Boutwell is hoping to use those skills to track down child predators here at home.
He was one of 17 military veterans sworn in at a ceremony Friday in Washington as the inaugural class of the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child Rescue Corps, a one-year pilot program announced last month. HERO Corps participants will be sent around the country to offices of Homeland Security Investigations.
Members of the military and law enforcement officers share a desire to protect, defend and get the bad guys, which makes veterans a good fit for the new program, said Brock Nicholson, who heads the ICE office in Atlanta, where Boutwell will be working.
“These guys that were heroes in one arena, we want to make them heroes in the law enforcement arena,” Nicholson said.
The program participants have just finished seven weeks of computer forensic analysis and digital evidence collection training at Homeland Security Investigations’ Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, Va. Before that, they had four weeks of training at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to learn about child exploitation cases, as well as state and federal criminal laws on the issue.
The veterans will conduct computer forensic exams under direct supervision of Homeland Security Investigations special agents to identify and rescue children who have been victims of sexual abuse and online sexual exploitation.
Boutwell was an 18-year-old Marine Corps machine gunner from San Antonio when he was injured in March 2004 while on patrol near the Syrian border in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. Wanting to remain in active service, he underwent surgeries and trained as an intelligence specialist.
After retiring from the Marine Corps about 15 months ago, he was looking for something worthwhile to do while pursuing a degree. His Veterans Affairs counselor gave him a flier about the HERO Corps pilot program, and he said he thought it would be a good fit, as many skills he learned working in intelligence can be used to track child predators.
He was aware of child exploitation and sexual abuse, but said he didn’t quite understand the scope of the problem before training.
“Most people are not aware or they don’t want to be aware because it’s just something that’s hard to understand and something that’s hard to swallow for most people,” he said. “I was one of those people before I joined this program. I was totally ignorant of the depth of the problem that exists.”
The issue’s widespread nature is one reason ICE was eager to participate when the National Association to Protect Children approached the agency with the idea to train wounded warriors as forensic analysts to help track child predators, said Acting ICE Director John Sandweg.
He said targeting domestic and transnational child exploitation has been a top priority for the agency, which is perhaps best known for its immigration enforcement actions. Its Homeland Security Investigations division has initiated more than 29,000 cases and arrested more than 10,000 for these crimes, according to agency data.
Georgia has become something of a hub for child exploitation activity, and the Atlanta ICE office has been at the forefront in fighting it, along with the help of local elected officials and organizations, Nicholson said. That’s one reason four of the 17 graduates of the first HERO Corps class are coming to Georgia – two to Atlanta and two to Savannah.
Other members of the inaugural class will go to offices in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
The program is being funded by a combination of public and private funds, and Sandweg said the hope is to secure future funding to institutionalize and expand it. The next recruitment opportunity is expected to start early next year.