TAMPA, Fla. - After losing both legs during his third deployment to Afghanistan, a Pasco County man finally achieved his dream of returning to war.
Except, this time, the battlefield looks a little different.
"In the beginning, when I first got blown up, I thought my life was over," Justin Gaertner said. "We think this is the end."
On his third deployment to Afghanistan, the young Marine was hit by an IED. Perhaps equally debilitating, he lost a future in combat.
At the same time, however, another war gained momentum closer to home.
"It's disturbing work. It's very upsetting. It's challenging. It's not for everybody," explained HSI Special Agent In Charge Susan McCormick.
McCormick oversees forensic analysis that tracks child exploitation from a field office in Tampa. It's one of a dozen new test sites for the "HERO Corps" pilot program.
Gaertner is one of 17 veterans participating, after training for two months in forensic analysis and digital evidence collection.
"It's kind of like going back to bootcamp," Gaertner said.
"It's exactly like going back in the battlefield. It's the same thing."
A Purple Heart medal recipient, Gaertner likens child predators to terrorists he scouted overseas.
"You're raping children here in my country. You're a terrorist. I don't want you here," Gaertner said. "I'm going to lock you up and put you behind bars."
Homeland Security even made room for Gaertner's service dog, "Gunner", who will carry hard drives and other material in his pack.
"These wounded warriors are coming to a new battlefield where they'll be helping us track down these predators," McCormick said.
While in Afghanistan, Gaertner combed areas for invisible IEDs, searching for virtually undetectable clues.
"That's a hard job to do but I Ioved doing it. Why? Because I saved lives," Gaertner said.
"Looking at child pornography day in and day out is not the best job, but the rewarding part of it is saving a kid's life."
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