After his combat wounds forced him to medically retire from the Army, Sgt. Tom Block has found a new mission.
Block, a veteran of the storied 75th Ranger Regiment and the 2014 Army Times Soldier of the Year, honored for his inspiring recovery and his continued efforts to motivate others, will now help federal law enforcement officials hunt down child predators.
"I felt it was a great way to extend the mission I had in special operations," Block said. "It's a mission of servitude and going after bad guys, and I like doing that and wanted to continue doing that."
On April 1, Block and 15 other wounded, ill or injured veterans graduated from the HERO Corps program. This latest class of graduates was made up of 9 soldiers, one sailor, three airmen and three Marines.
The Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Corps is a partnership between the military, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the National Association to Protect Children. It gives wounded, ill or injured troops a chance to train in high-tech computer forensics and law enforcement skills so they can help federal agents in the fight against online child sexual exploitation, according to information on the ICE website.
The men and women receive eight weeks of digital forensics and child exploitation investigation training before they are sent to Homeland Security Investigations field offices across the country for 10-month internships. There, they will train with and assist HSI special agents with criminal investigations, conduct computer forensic exams and help to identify and rescue child victims.
"I think we can all agree that there is no crime that is more heinous, that gets our attention more readily, than the sexual abuse and exploitation of children," said Sarah Saldana, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Partnering with the military, particularly U.S. Special Operations Command, in the HERO Corps program gives ICE candidates who are mature, dedicated and focused, Saldana said.
"The Department of Defense has trained them, and now we get to give them some additional training and then put them out there to try and do this important work," she said. "This is very demanding and really, really difficult work, and this is a ready pool of people who have a great chance of success."
So far, the HERO Corps has trained 83 veterans, and the goal is to train a total of 40 in fiscal year 2016.
At least 22 have been hired as full-time computer forensic analysts.
J. Christian, a former Army Ranger and early HERO Corps graduate who is now the chief operating officer of the National Association to Protect Children, said service members, especially special operations troops, bring a unique dedication to the mission to hunt down child predators.
"They've proven themselves time and time again to be the best of the best," Christian said. "They understand where there's a mission like this to take on, they go after it with all they have. The mentality they bring in has been unmatched."
The work HERO Corps graduates take on is difficult, but it also is "extremely rewarding," Christian said.
"When you're analyzing a hard drive, that's a new form of the enemy," he said. "It really gives you gratification that you're going into that digital material and possibly rescuing a victim."
The HERO Corps program also helps service members who are transitioning from military service, Christian said. And as a former Ranger, he has helped recruit at least 11 former members of the regiment into the HERO Corps.
"When I came into the HERO Corps, I thought, 'this is where I should be telling my buddies their next mission is at,'" he said.
Former Ranger and Army Times soldier of the year Tom Block and his colleagues are sworn in after graduating from HERO Corps training at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 1, 2016. The graduates will go on to internships at a variety of agencies to learn how to combat child sexual exploitation.
Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff
For high-speed special operations troops, a medical retirement or physical limitations from combat wounds can be devastating, he said. The HERO Corps program gives them a new mission and a new career, he said.
"I've seen guys turn around from depths of depression to once again being the vibrant superstar we knew back in Regiment," he said. "It's something that keeps giving back, not only to the children and to the agencies they support, but also to the individuals who do the work."
Retired Maj. David Matzel, a self-described "nerd gear head" who graduated alongside Block, said he was intrigued by mission of the HERO Corps.
"The real impact for me was seeing how vast [child sexual exploitation] was," he said. "It looks like it never ends. You have to keep in the back of your mind that there's a kid you're going to save."
The program does a good job of connecting with veterans, said Matzel, who will do his internship in Blaine, Washington.
"This is just like your missions overseas. There is an enemy out there, and you can help get that enemy," he said. "This new venture we're going into, I think, is just as important as going after Zarqawi or bin Laden or whoever the target is. We have a direct ability to save kids here."
Capt. George Riley, who is waiting to be medically retired from the Army, agreed.
"Finding a child, even rescuing one child, is worth it," he said.
Riley, another member of the newest graduating class, spent most of his career, including as an enlisted soldier, with the 56th Chemical Reconnaissance Detachment, which is attached to 5th Special Forces Group.
He deployed five times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan; he was wounded in an improvised explosive device blast in Mosul, Iraq.
The HERO Corps gives him a new mission after the Army, he said.
"My physical limitations stop me from doing some things I want, but this opportunity came about," he said. "I have a daughter. The stuff that goes on, somebody has to step up and do the dirty work."
Riley will complete his internship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
As for Block, who was medically retired in February, he will intern in the Homeland Security Investigations field office in Boston, Massachusetts.
The transition from the 75th Ranger Regiment, where Block served in 3rd Battalion, wasn't easy, he said.
"Growing up, I've always been a very physical-minded person," he said. "This was different for me. It wasn't something I could just punch through or lift out of the way."
But Block said he received good, solid training, and he's ready for his internship.
"When I left the 75th Ranger Regiment, I was looking for that team mentality one more time, and I believe I've found that with HSI and the HERO Corps," he said.
Sgt. Thomas Block served with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He medically retired in February.
Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff
Block was wounded in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber in October 2013. Among his injuries was the loss of his right eye, which he replaced with a prosthetic eye that bears the Captain America shield.
He hopes the eye, which draws a lot of attention, can someday serve as an ice breaker when he helps to rescue a child.
"I look at the Captain American shield as a symbol of hope for those that are going through a tough time," he said.
Block said he's looking forward to diving into his new mission.
"Children are our future, and someone's got to be there to stave away the wolves," he said. "It's going to be a hard road, but I'd gladly raise my right hand every time to protect these children. You look at kids differently now. If there's somebody out there who's willing to hurt you, I will be willing to find them and bring them to justice."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.