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Latino Vet's Important New Mission: Find Child Sexual Predators

 / Updated 
Carlos Gonzalez of Southlake, Texas, is sworn in Friday with 12 others after graduating from a program that trains special operations military veterans to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigate sexual exploitation of children. The graduates go on to do 11-month unpaid internships with ICE. Gonzalez is headed to Dallas.Immigration and Customs Enforcem

WASHINGTON, DC -- Army veteran Carlos Gonzalez figured he’d seen the worst while working as a combat medic, helping ferret out explosive devices in Afghanistan and bringing aid to people in Haiti. Then he started training to track down child sexual predators.

“I was surprised at the extreme of [their] violence and the nature of how young they prey,” Gonzalez said Friday.

Gonzalez was sworn in Friday with 12 other veterans as part of the Human Exploitation Rescue Corps, or HERO Corps, a unit of military veterans who have been training to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigate sexual exploitation of children.

 Carlos Gonzalez, 33, of Southlake, Texas, is a special operations military veteran training with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to investigate child sexual predators. Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

All are former members of special operations units, which include the elite forces of the military. As such, they are considered to have the mental re-enforcement investigators need to deal with horrifying child sex crimes and their victims.

“We’re ideal for this job only because we have been exposed to so much. We can handle that,” Gonzalez said.

He and the others underwent 11 weeks of classroom training and now have 10 months of unpaid internships in ICE offices throughout the country. Gonzalez, 33, is headed to Dallas, where he spent much of his childhood. He was born in Eagle Pass, Texas.

A father of three - ages 7, 1 and 5 months - Gonzalez said it wasn’t hard for him to want to take on a role of protecting children.

He was introduced to the program through the Care Coalition of the U.S. Special Operations Command, which provides support for special ops members and veterans. He said he “fell in love” with its mission.

“We’re ideal for this job only because we have been exposed to so much. We can handle that,” Gonzalez said.

In addition, “rescue” has been an operative word for him, as it is for other members of special operations units, which many people recognize as Green Berets, Navy SEALS and Delta Force.

Gonzalez was a combat medic and member of psych Ops. The latter job put him in the role of helping units get information about locations of explosive devices from local residents in Afghanistan. He also was the first person from a pych ops unit to deploy to Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake.

“I was sent to join up with the Air Force special operations to set up vital communications so we could relay relief messages to the victims,” he said.

The Army’s web site says members of psychological operations are responsible for analysis, development and distribution of intelligence used for information and psychological effect.

Gonzalez had wanted to be a Marine when he was growing up but when he graduated from high school at 17 his parents, fearful of the ongoing wars refused to give permission needed for recruits not yet 18. He attended University of North Texas for three years, and then, because he could do so without his parents permission, joined the Army.

After the military, Gonzalez worked as a physical education teacher at an Irving, Texas elementary school, before joining the program. He has since earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and is working on a master's of business degree with a concentration in cybersecurity.

Gonzalez follows his father, originally from Coahuila, Mexico, in working with the Department of Homeland Security. His father worked at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which like ICE is part of Homeland Security.

The investigative unit where Gonzalez and the others will intern, and possibly work once the internship is up, is a unique public-private partnership.

It involves ICE; the military by way of the the U.S. Special Operations Command’s CARE Coalition; a non-profit group that lobbies on behalf of children, the National Association to Protect Children and the private company CDW, which provides computers for training.

Gonzalez is in the second class of graduates and one of two Latinos in this year’s class. The other, Ramy Ramirez, a Marine, was not able to attend the graduation because of an appointment. Two Latinos also were in the first graduating class.

Grier Weeks, National Association to Protect Children executive director, said the program was started by James Melia, an FBI agent and John Melia, his brother, who founded Wounded Warrior Project.

Weeks said when the program was being started, he asked scores of police whether special operations veterans were a good match for the child sexual investigations. The responses varied and some said no because of the possibility the veterans may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

“What we concluded is that the No. 1 requirement is sort of a toughness, a mental toughness. It’s true what they’ve seen really has prepared them to look at evil and to look at horror and go ahead and do that work,” Weeks said.

Weeks’ group helps provide financial support for training, about $1 million a year on each class, as well as travel, hotel stays and equipment. Some of the training is done in Houston. Homeland Security spends about $250,000 a year for the training, but the program has no appropriation.

Weeks said there is a request for $20 million in the House Homeland Security Appropriations bill and a $1 million request in the bill that would fund Department of Justice.

Asked what families should know about child sexual exploitation, Gonzalez said: "One of the biggest misconceptions is that one, they (parents) presume they can point out (a problem) and two, that their child will tell them if anything was to happen, and that's not true," he said.


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