In 2009, the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT) approached the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with a unique idea for combatting child sexual exploitation: recruit wounded veterans from some of America’s most elite military units, train them in counter-child-exploitation and embed them with law enforcement as “human exploitation rescue operatives,” or HEROs. DHS signaled its strong interest in the new mission and serious planning began.
In 2012, Army Master Sergeant Rich Robertson, a former special operator injured while serving in Iraq, led the HERO Corps to its next major milestone. Robertson was part of a team at Oak Ridge National Lab working with PROTECT on new strategies to fight child exploitation. He introduced the HERO working group to the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)’s Care Coalition in Tampa, Florida, receiving enthusiastic support. Excitement was growing over a program that would give highly trained, elite warriors a new mission, propelled by a new sense of purpose and relevance.
In early 2013, PROTECT and USSOCOM returned to Homeland Security, meeting this time with senior officials at DHS’ U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The agency had a long tradition of combatting international child exploitation, through the work of the U.S. Customs Service and had grown to become a leading innovator in the law enforcement field. ICE green-lit the HERO Corps in April of 2013, establishing a new public-private working group with an unbelievable deadline: design, plan, recruit, screen, process and seat the first HERO Corps class in just three months.
The group’s success was a surprising testament to what’s possible when government, military and private sector Americans join forces. The HERO Corps could never have launched without generous private donations of funding and high-tech equipment, which enabled the initiative to launch during a year marked by both federal spending freezes and a government shutdown. Today, private sector involvement continues to provide critical innovation, drive and support to the HERO Corps.
In early August 2013, the first class of HEROs reported for training with PROTECT’s Weiss Center for Child Rescue at the historic Oak Ridge National Lab, where the ultra-secret Manhattan Project had invented the atom bomb in the 1940s. There the HEROs learned about their new mission, the scope and nature of child exploitation, child abuse and trauma, and the law enforcement landscape. The next month, the class moved on to the Washington, DC area, for seven weeks of intensive training and certification in computer forensics with the elite ICE Cyber Crimes Center.
On October 17th, 2013, the first class of the H.E.R.O. Child-Rescue Corps was sworn in and soon scattered to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) field offices across the U.S. In May, two months before the scheduled completion of their federal law enforcement internships, the entire 2013 graduating HERO class was offered employment by ICE.
The HERO Corps’ second class convened in Houston, Texas for training in August 2014. The move from Oak Ridge signaled the beginning of another important HERO partnership, with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force program. The Houston ICAC, in partnership with the Children’s Assessment Center of Houston, hosted the training, as ICACs and their law enforcement affiliates from around the nation began to clamor for “a HERO of their own.”
Recruitment for the third class of the HERO Corps began in November 2014. Since then, the program has continued to grow and the 100th HERO entered the field in 2017. Our HEROs continue to build new partnerships, have mission-driven careers, and are mounting a record of child rescues every step of the way.