Military vets find new mission: stopping child predators

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Washington, DC, May 21, 2015 | comments

The Sun Sentinel

By William E. GibsonWashington Bureau

Fresh from the battlefields of Afghanistan, three former soldiers from South Florida who once targeted Taliban fighters are learning computer forensic skills to help law enforcement agencies track down pedophiles and sex traffickers.

To these cyber warriors, the new mission is much like their battles overseas: it's all about bringing down "bad guys."

"Over there, we were dealing with bad guys in Afghanistan. Now we're going to be putting away bad guys in this country, which is more important to me," said Kevin Droddy, 31, a former infantryman from West Palm Beach.

Droddy, his twin brother Jason Droddy and Steve Lumbert, of Miami, are among 23 veterans training in Fairfax, Va., to get into the guts of computer hard drives and software programs to find evidence of pornography, much of it marked by disturbing images of young children.

Soon they will return home to put those skills to use for the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose mission includes curbing online child pornography and sex trafficking.

South Florida, one of the world's busiest transit points, is also a major hub for human trafficking, making it a focal point in the global battle against enslavement, prostitution and sexual exploitation of underage girls and boys.

The training program, a pilot project that began two years ago to employ wounded veterans, is turning into a dedicated source of law enforcers known as the HERO Corps — Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Corps.

A bill to curb human trafficking, passed by the U.S. Senate in April and the House on Tuesday, makes the HERO program a permanent part of Homeland Security and its budget. The program is partly funded by a five-year $10 million contribution from individuals and foundations through the National Association to Protect Children, a non-profit association.

Corps members are unpaid volunteers during the year-long training, but most eventually take jobs with Homeland Security or with local or state enforcement agencies.

"Any agency is fine, as long as it's helping kids," said Jason Droddy, also of West Palm Beach.

"This is time-sensitive stuff," he said. "The longer we wait, the more time it gives a pedophile the chance to abuse another child."

Spurred by widespread trafficking in Florida, state and federal lawmakers are especially supportive of the HERO Corps.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, pushed hard to authorize the program. "Our sons and daughters deserve to live a world where they cannot be sold as property or manipulated by abusers," she said after the trafficking bill cleared Congress.

More than 360 reports of human trafficking in Florida were received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in 2014, and another 77 cases were reported in the first three months of this year. The Center says these numbers do not fully reflect the scale or scope of the problem.Statewide human trafficking initiative focuses on children

A new statewide initiative championed by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and law enforcement agencies aims to end human trafficking by focusing on parents talking to their children about the dangers of speaking with strangers online and through text messages.

Statewide human trafficking initiative focuses on children

"The majority of human trafficking involves the horrendous sex trade," said state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington. "We are working at every level to make sure we can put a stop to it the best we can. Our men and women veterans who have been on the front lines are one of the most valuable assets we could ever ask for in this war to eradicate this activity."

This year's 23 trainees are completing eight weeks of computer forensics training and will spend 10 months assisting Homeland Security agents with criminal investigations. A prior graduate of the program already is taking apart seized computers and examining software programs in South Florida to gather evidence against those suspected of distributing pornography and abusing children. He declined to be interviewed.

"The more resources we have to analyze these computers, the more people we can go after," said Joe Trias, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security in South Florida. "We won't get a search warrant for a computer unless we have the ability to analyze it."

In a recent case, examination of a computer seized in Miami Beach revealed images of a man abusing two infants, leading to the arrest of a Lakeland suspect accused of sexual battery and distribution of pornography.

Steve Lumbert, of Miami, a trainee and 30-year Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he's "looking forward to putting a hurt on the bad guys."

"There are millions of pedophiles out there. There are 23 in this program, and maybe another hundred out there doing it. So it's a target-rich environment," he said.

"My plan is to take Miami and make it the best place I can."

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