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HERO Corps

November 3, 2014

Wounded warrior Oskar Zepeda gets the chance to continue to serve his county in the battle against online child pornography. It is part of a new effort called The Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child Rescue Corps (the HERO Corps), to help veterans like Oskar as they return to civilian life. Enrique Cerna tells us how Oskar became a part of this unique pilot project.

Enrique Cerna: After all he’s been through.

Oskar Zepeda: You know after just being hospitalized and being in a bed.

Cerna: Oskar Zepeda still welcomes a challenge.

Zepeda: You know I got up one day and I was like  no, I’m going to better myself and get back to what I use to be

Cerna: On 9-11, he was a high school kid wondering what the future held for him. The terrorists attacks changed that  and his life. Right after graduation, Oskar enlisted in the Army.

Zepeda: I’ll do one more. Alright.

This is exactly what I told my recruiter, I want to serve  my country and I want to fight, I want to be in the front lines fighting the battle, that’s what I want to do.

Oskar Zepeda after completing Army Ranger training at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

Cerna: Oskar went on to become an Army Ranger, an elite soldier in the Army’s premier raid force.

He trained at Joint Base Lewis McChord where he was assigned to the legendary 2nd battalion, 75th regiment.

Oskar was tough, driven and strong willed. Traits that served him well in combat…and when he became a casualty of war.

Zepeda: So the damage was my quad and my hamstring was pretty much gone. All these little dots right here is actual shrapnel that’s still stuck in my body

Cerna: During his ten years in the Army, Oskar rose to the rank of special operations Special Operations Staff Sergeant. He was deployed overseas nine times, three to Iraq, six to Afghanistan. As a squad leader, he was where he wanted to be, on the front lines…

Zepeda: We’re conducting missions you know special operation targets high value individuals.

We actually get targets from certain individuals and kill or capture these individuals later at night.

Cerna: On the night of September 8th, 2011, Oskar was squad leader on a mission to capture a Taliban commander inside a house in Afghanistan.

Zepeda: So he started yelling and trying to make a run for the door. I tried to restrain him, by putting my arm on him and he continued making a break for the door. At that time I had to use, you know, to restrain him a little bit more. And as I had my arms around him he ended up detonating a grenade and next thing you know- it’s just chaos

Cerna: Oskar took the brunt of the blast to the right side of his body. Battered and bleeding out, he was barely hanging on.

Zepeda: I was in tremendous -tremendous pain, but my will and my heart kept telling me, “hey, you have a family, you have kids, you gotta fight” and I just kept telling my lungs- keep pumping, keep pumping, keep pumping, keep pumping. Let’s, let’s go, let’s go. I woke up 3 days later in Germany. I had all these hoses hooked up to me, but I was alive.

Former Army Ranger Oskar Zepeda recovering from the wounds he suffered during a nighttime raid in Afghanistan.

Cerna: Surgeons saved Oskar’s right arm and leg from amputation. Over the next two years, he endured 25 reconstructive surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy.  

Oskar now uses a specially made foot brace that allows him to walk and run normally. A battery powered neuro stimulator behind his neck helps to relieve constant nerve pain that runs through his right arm. His recovery is ongoing – for body and mind.

Zepeda: I know what I look like underneath these clothes. It’s a struggle not only mentally but psychologically, sometimes emotionally, but I manage.

Cerna: Your military career was over.

Zepeda: Definitely. I lost my career that night.

Cerna: Was that hard to take?

Zepeda: Definitely. Very hard to take because to me the military was number one, family and friends, number two. I wanted to serve my country. And I wanted to do 20 plus years to become a sergeant major eventually, but that didn’t happen.

Cerna: Something else did happen and it would set Oskar on an unexpected career path where there would be a new mission and a different type of foe.

As Oskar thought about his future, a wounded warrior advocate at Joint Base Lewis McCord convinced him to apply for a new pilot project specifically designed for elite soldiers like him who suffered physical or psychological wounds. It’s called The Hero Corps. Hero stands for Human Exploitation Rescue Operative.

Oskar would train to become a computer forensic investigator in the fight against online child sexual exploitation.

Brad Bench: Now that they’re wounded and they have to leave the military, it gives them a new battlefield and that new battlefield is the search for children that may be being abused and the prosecution of sexual predators and it’s a win for the public because it’s another set of eyes, another investigator that can help rescue these children.

Cerna: The Hero Corps idea came from the National Association To Protect Children.

ICE- Immigration Customs Enforcement’s Homland Security Investigations and the Defense Department’s Special Operations Command bought in and helped to create the pilot project.

Over the past decade, federal investigators have had their hands full tracking down child sex criminals locally and globally, initiating more than 29 thousand cases and making some 10 thousand arrests.

Bench: The more the internet grows, the more the problem of child sex exploitation grows as well

Cerna: Brad Bench is Special Agent In Charge of Homeland Security Investigations Seattle Office.

How does the background many of these wounded warriors have already, how does it work for you.

Bench: These individuals are highly trained, they’re skilled individuals

These investigations into child sexual exploitation they’re extremely disturbing, difficult to deal with- the images are difficult to deal with. And these wounded warriors have shown the ability to manage that kind of trauma that they’re going deal with- seeing these images.

Cerna: Oskar Zepeda was one of the 17 wounded warriors accepted into the Hero Corps pilot class.

They spent 11 weeks of intensive training, learning about legal issues related to child exploitation as well as the ins and outs of computer forensic analysis and digital evidence collection. It was challenging work.

You didn’t know anything about computers. No I did not.

Zepeda: I knew about guns and ammunition. Never knew nothing about computers. So this whole field is totally-totally new to me. Was that daunting-scary? Very scary. Very overwhelming at times you could say. But very doable as well.

Cerna: For Oskar, it was about applying the discipline and motivation from his Army Ranger days…

As he worked to learn everything he needed to know to complete his new mission.

That meant thoroughly understanding software and hard drives plus being able to take apart a computer and then putting it back together as part of the search for evidence.

And then passing a tough certification test.  

Zepeda: But I was disciplined and motivated to study and pass this test; and that was probably for me number 1. That was like my target that I had accomplished- and yes it does pay off, it does pay off.

Cerna: All of the Veterans in the Hero Corps pilot class made it through the training and passed the certification test. All were given one year internships at Homeland Security Investigations field offices around the country.

Oskar was assigned to the Seattle H-S-I office where, on his first day, he joined special agents on a warrant raid.

Since then…

Zepeda: I’ve gone out with the agents on multiple search warrants

It’s awesome because I get to go out there and still- you know, be part of the team.

You find an individual, you go look for him, bring him back- you know, prosecute him, put him behind bars for stuff that he shouldn’t be doing.

So, for me this is second opportunity to serve my country

Cerna: What you do now you see a lot of awful things related to children.

Zepeda: They’re very disturbing. I think your average person wouldn’t be able to tolerate it- you know. A lot of would probably turn the other way and act like it doesn’t exit. It does exist.

I went overseas 9 times, I’ve seen it all, I’ve done it all. So being mentally tough, I bring that with me over here. So when I see these images I try not to see them for what they are you know- I don’t get involved, but I do acknowledge that they’re wrong and I’ll go ahead and I start working my case off of that and just don’t get attached with what I’m seeing.

So this laptop here was actually seized from an individual or suspect from a search warrant containing CP, child pornography.

Cerna: In the year since he joined the Hero Corps project, Oskar Zepeda has gone from being intimated by technology to becoming a skilled Computer Forensic Investigator. In fact, he performed so well that Homeland Security Investigations hired him as a full time employee.

Zepeda: I will transfer down to Long Beach, California and continue to do computer forensics down there and hopefully catch more bad people that shouldn’t be committing crimes against these children.

Cerna: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among veterans hovers at more than nine percent. That troubles Oskar who wants the public to realize that many other Wounded Warriors like him need opportunities as they transition from the battlefield to civilian life.

Zepeda: There are a lot of veterans out there- you know, whether they retired or got hurt; they served their country- you know. They gave it all.

I think that they’re physically and mentally tough and they can accomplish any task that is thrown at them and they’ll do it at 100% and then some.

Cerna: Like you? 

Zepeda: Like me - correct.



Made possible in part by

Enrique Cerna

The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley.  Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.

Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.

More stories by Enrique Cerna