Wounded veterans trained to fight online predators

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A career change is tough for anyone, but especially so for highly specialized combat veterans. Now, a federal program is training those wounded during those combat missions to fight a different kind of enemy: child sex predators.

And their training begins in Pinellas County.

The program is called the HERO Corps. HERO stands for "human exploitation rescue operative."

The Department of Homeland Security launched the program in 2012 and recently partnered with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to hold the first phase of training in St. Petersburg.

FOX 13 met some of the recruits, who said they found a new way to serve their country. Sergeant Thomas Block was trained as an elite Army Ranger. 

In 2013, a suicide bomber in Afghanistan almost took his life. And Sgt. Block says -- for awhile -- took his life's purpose.

"I was thinking after I got hurt, there might not be the same kind of opportunity for me -- to find the same value in a job as I had with the Rangers," Block explained. "What I like to do as a Ranger is, I like to go find bad guys. And I was really good at it. And now I've got this opportunity with the HERO Corps."

On Tuesday, a class of 24 recruits for the program gathered at the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center to begin 11 weeks of training.

Among them, Army Colonel Stephanie Gerber, who had what she would only describe as a "devastating experience" overseas, leaving her wondering if she could go on living.

And then she heard about the HERO Corps' mission.

"The crimes against the children are so horrific," Col. Gerber said. "It allows you to remove yourself from your own circumstances. You get to break free from your prison."

Ex-Marine Justin Gertner said he knows what's ahead for the recruits, and what's behind them. Gertner graduated from the HERO Corps' inaugural class and now works for Homeland Security.

“Everything you can think of that can hold some kind of media, we learn the forensics on it," he explained. 

Last year, he helped put away Benjamin Cuadrado, a Lakeland man who filmed and distributed 70 videos of himself having sex with an infant and a toddler. It's exactly the kind of bad guy these re-trained, re-purposed, rejuvenated soldiers look forward to hunting down.

And in some cases, saving their own.

"You look forward to getting out of bed in the morning. You look forward to having a purpose. Something that really matters. And that's everything," Col. Gerber said. 

After three weeks of training in Pinellas County, the recruits will move to the Federal Cyber Crime Center in Virginia to undergo some intense training on finding and collecting forensic cyber evidence.