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Wounded special-ops veterans take on new enemy: child porn

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    Oskar Zepeda was a sharpshooter in the Army, but now takes aim at child pornographers.

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    Zepeda says catching bad guys online is just another way of sevring his country. (AP)

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    Zepeda was nearly killed while hunting for a deadly Taliban commander in Afghanistan in 2011.

Oskar Zepeda lost his childhood dream of being a soldier on Sept. 8, 2011, in Logar Province, Afghanistan, but he's found a new way to continue serving his country -- and protect its children.

Leading a team whose nighttime mission was kill or capture a deadly Taliban commander, Zepeda was clearing a house when an insurgent pulled the pin on a grenade. “I heard a boom and then I couldn’t see or feel anything. My body wasn’t responding to what my mind was telling it to do,” recalled Zepeda.

“I can still smell the blood, the smoke and hear the chaos,” said the former Ranger sharpshooter and U.S. Army Special Operations staff sergeant. 

After nine deployments, Zepeda, 29, was maimed and near death when he awoke three days later at a military hospital in Germany. He would undergo dozens of surgeries, with more still ahead. He was lucky to keep all four limbs after devastating leg and arm injuries. Yet, he says, he would not change a thing.

It’s this rare warrior's mindset which is being tapped for a bold new mission forged by a private-public partnership which has Zepeda setting his sights on a new enemy, and using computer forensics in the battle against child pornography.

"From my first case, I was hooked chasing bad guys."

- Oskar Zepeda, former Army Ranger

Aptly dubbed “HERO,” the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative is being developed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Special Operations Command in conjunction with the National Association to Protect Children. The idea grew out of a chance conversation between a child advocate and an FBI agent about equipping wounded elite soldiers with high-tech computer forensics training and law enforcement skills to assist federal agents in their fight against online child sexual exploitation. 

This year the intensive training will begin in Houston followed by six weeks of computer forensics training in Virginia and an embedded internship assisting HSI special agents with criminal cases and prosecutions.

“We’re fighting a domestic war for the children of America,” said Camille Cooper of the National Association to Protect Children. “There may be a fire down at the border right now, but there’s a fire in every state in this country right now and the federal government knows about it.”

Cooper describes crimes so troubling and difficult to solve that it requires “unbreakable men” and “hunters who won’t stop until the job is done."

Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles, agrees.

“These veterans are highly-motivated Type- A individuals who understand not only what it takes to get the job done, but who are already oriented to service to country and eager to serve,” says Arnold. “These types of investigations require a certain aptitude and very expensive training. Before this program, our agents with both skill sets worked in forensics for three years, which meant our cops were not on the streets.”

In the past, child pornography was created overseas and smuggled into the country. Now it’s done with an iPhone and sent all over the world in an instant. 

“This isn’t a profit-motivated crime,” says Arnold. “It’s twisted. They are collectors and it’s more fun to share. It’s evil.”

There are more than 500,000 individual computers in the U.S. storing or transmitting hard-core images and movies of infants and toddlers being raped, according to Cooper. Seizure of those computers and arrests involving their owners leads to the direct rescue of actual child victims in more than half the cases, she said.

“Much like trading baseball cards, this crime is predominantly fueled by predators interested in "sharing." The images themselves become the currency in this global trade,” said Cooper. “The demand for new images of children being raped fuels the demand for new and more violent, sadistic images which can then only be met by the rape of additional children.”

Zepeda was one of the first 16 wounded former special-operations soldiers to undergo the training. The father of three is now working for HSI in Long Beach, Calif., as a computer forensic analyst while 14 of his classmates have accepted offers of federal employment. The second class of 16 will graduate next month. The National Association to Protect Children spent $500,000 on the first class for travel, lodging and meal, although the internships are unpaid.

Zepeda, who considered going into the medical field before going into the internship program, was undeterred.

“They’ve picked the right kind of guy. As a soldier with 10 years in the military, I’d seen everything so I don’t get connected to it,” he said. “Society will be messed up and the cycle will repeat itself if we don’t have the manpower to stop crimes against children. From my first case, I was hooked chasing bad guys. Now, I just have a different battlefield.”

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