Tampa, Florida - Homeland security officials have launched a new pilot program to keep children safe from sexual predators.
There are only 17 special agents in the program in the country and several of them are stationed in the Tampa Bay area. One ex-Marine likens this U.S. mission to "fighting terrorism."
"I wanted to stay active in my community, my society, and serve my country," said Justin Gaertner. He took the job last year, receiving government training to be a computer forensics agent, which allowed him to become a Human Exploitation Rescue Operative -- aka a "HERO."
"My first search warrant was in New Port Richey where I was raised. It's sickening to think about how many people are out there trying to have sex with kids."
Homeland security officials say last year alone over 2,000 offenders were arrested nationally.
Nine hundred children were saved. Gaertner said, "Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and Clearwater police, we got 35 guys in just four days."
He said sometimes, on days like that, he feels like he's engaged in warfare, which he knows well. "I joined the Marine Corps in 2007 ... went on three deployments overseas."
In 2010, he was blown up by a roadside bomb.
"I thought my legs were buried in the sand, because they weren't there. I immediately went into shock," he said. Then, he went into survival mode. "I had a sign outside the door saying, 'Don't come in here feeling sorry for me.'"
He said he was determined not to be set back by that side-step, and with his service dog, Gunner, at his side, he found his way forward.
"I am still kicking down doors just like I was. They are terrorists to our society, children, and country."
Gaertner said the way to guard children is to encourage them not to keep secrets, to have open communication and talk about issues. He said the most common predators turn out to be people in positions centralized around children -- teachers, coaches, even parents.