“I’m really a nobody. I’m an ordinary dude. I’m probably less than ordinary. I’m just a tiny little match. It won’t light up a bright room, but in a closet, it lights up the dark.”
Over the past five years, Drew has been in an estimated two thousand brothels. He’s been in the trenches with thousands of exploited girls and boys in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the U.S., and Latin America.
Earlier this year, our team at The Exodus Road had the privilege of spending the first hour of the morning in a Q & A with Drew, and after that, he generously spent another hour sharing more thoughts and stories with me.
Drew is the Director of TER’s Team Delta, a collection of Volunteer Covert Intelligence Operatives (VCIOs) that support the investigative work of our national teams globally. Our VCIO men and women pose as Johns and Janes, entering brothels with undercover cameras to look for minors and collect documentation of their sales as they create cases for local law enforcement.
His childhood was marked by poverty and hunger, realities that bore an appreciation for the opportunities that were later available to him as a young man.
In search of a future beyond the difficulties of his youth, Drew joined the U.S. Army and began what would become a 21-year-career. As an Army Special Forces soldier (aviation division), Drew was shot out of Afghani airspace alongside his comrades. He was wounded, and the injuries sustained from that firefight and subsequent helicopter crash forced an early retirement from his military career.
If you ask him, Drew will tell you he prefers to live outside of the box.
In 2015, Drew met David Zach, TER VCIO and lead singer/songwriter for the alt-rock band Remedy Drive. As the crew tore down the stage after a concert, David told Drew about the work of The Exodus Road. He was intrigued and applied to join the VCIO Team Delta. After the vetting process, and some of his first trips as a VCIO, Drew and his wife made the decision to move their family to Thailand to assist Thailand’s Team Alpha. They lived in a Thai neighborhood with the intent to offer their children a different perspective on the world. They loved living there and formed fast friendships with Thai neighbors they would come to love.
The Exodus Road was quickly growing, and before long they needed Drew to do work not only in Thailand –but in the U.S. and Latin America, as well. So Drew and his family left a part of their hearts in Thailand and returned to the U.S., where he’s been an integral part of leadership and participation in ongoing investigations and raids leading to freedom or survivors.
When I asked him about what was challenging in this work, Drew explained that the intervention itself was the hardest.
I asked Drew to describe how people can fall prey to human trafficking. For him, the explanation was simple:
In the western world, opportunities bring choices. But in a developing world, where there may not be those choices or social safety nets, mere survival compels a person to fly to another country for a job offer as a hotel worker or a fisherman. The vulnerable arrive, have their documents such as passports and IDs taken from them, and find that they’re trapped as the truth of their coercion comes into focus. They learn that they now owe money for their transportation and additional “fees.” If they don’t do the “work” that is demanded of them, they are threatened with physical harm or the possibility of being turned over to local police without their documentation.
Drew told me a story about a family in South East Asia whose entire rice harvest, their only source of livelihood, was devastated by a monsoon. The local warlord (who often operates like a local banker in rural villages where banking doesn’t exist) offered to buy their daughter. The parents were faced with a decision between two awful options. Would the entire family be exploited in some form, or would they face the loss of their daughter and a second chance at survival? So began their daughter’s subjection.
Trafficking is also sometimes perpetuated by the trafficked themselves. Drew worked on a case in Latin America, and over a series of investigative assignments, he learned the story of the trafficker within the case. At only sixteen, she was intelligent and driven. Her parents had divorced and her dad started selling her for sex (familial trafficking). She was trapped and willing to do anything to escape it.
“And so what she did was she started selling kids. I sat with her as she bared her soul and told me that this wasn’t who she was. This is what she had to do [to escape her own trafficking] and now, she’s in jail.”
Among all the stories that Drew shared with us that day in our Colorado Springs office, there is one that gives me chills every time I hear it. Drew’s first successful rescue operation was the result of a great amount of investigative work and perseverance. He shares the story of a young Thai boy named Phim, who found freedom through the efforts of a trafficking raid on the border of Thailand. Drew recalls this story in detail in Episode Two of “Until All Are Free.”
We were all changed that morning in the office by Drew’s heart and relentless yet humble determination for justice. Sitting at my desk on this weekday morning a few weeks later, surrounded by a compassionate and focused group of people who care enough to show up for freedom, Drew’s sobering words continue to ring in my head.
“As we sit here in Colorado on a Tuesday morning, girls and boys are walking into a short time room [hotel rooms sold by the hour in Southeast Asia].”
I’m reminded that we must all keep leaning into this heavy work for the sake of other survivors, like Phim, who are being sold and are yet to be found. We will keep going until all are free.
You can listen to the full episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts through the link below. If you would like to read a full transcript of the episode, it is available below.
Note: Until All Are Free is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a third party speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
I went to my partner and I was like, "Hey, they want us to abort. It's too dangerous." And I was like, "I might be the lead investigator on the team, but your life's at risk too. What do you want to do?"
Preston Goff: (00:36)
This is Until All Are Free, a podcast by The Exodus Road. I'm Preston Goff. The Exodus Road is a nonprofit dedicated to the strategic fight against human trafficking across the globe. We gather intelligence, empower nationals, and facilitate rescue missions alongside local law enforcement as we fight to end human trafficking around the world. The Exodus Road was founded in 2011, and to date we've celebrated over 1,375 rescues and 688 trafficker arrests.
Preston Goff: (01:10)
On today's episode, we're bringing you an interview conversation from early in 2020 that I had with Drew, our director of Delta operatives.
Preston Goff: (01:20)
A quick listener note. This episode includes descriptions of abuse and sexual violence that may be triggering for some listeners. There are also some words that we've left unbeeped. Okay, here's the interview.
Preston Goff: (01:41)
Hey there, listener. My name is Preston Goff and I'm the creative director here at The Exodus Road. Sitting across from me right now is an individual who is very near and dear to our hearts here in the organization. Drew is our director of Delta operations, which means that he organizes and communicates with our Delta operatives... v volunteers from the United States who are vetted and trained to fight trafficking on short-term deployments across the globe.
Preston Goff: (02:07)
Drew, it is great to have you with us today.
Hey, it's good to be here.
Preston Goff: (02:12)
I wonder if you might just share a bit about your story, where you're from, what your background is, and then ultimately, what led you to your first encounter with The Exodus Road?
Yeah, absolutely. First off, let me say, it's an honor to be doing this with you. It's not something I'm used to. I'm used to being in the shadows.
So, I was born up north in Wisconsin and then moved away. Moved all over, moved back to Wisconsin to finish high school, and then joined the military and did the military for about 21 years. Did volunteer deployment with them. While I was there in the military, I ended up meeting my wife while I was on leave and ended up asking her to marry me like three days after we met. Which was crazy, but it's worked out well so far. And then promptly left for a year, and she waited the whole time, and I knew she was the one.
And so my last deployment didn't quite go the way we wanted it to go. And I ended up getting wounded, ended up breaking my back. Got a really easy gunshot wound, but that kind of started the process of having to look to do something else. And so I retired, got out of the military and just kind of, "Hey God, what do you want me to do?" And ended up doing a pastoral internship. I was asked to do that.
And while doing that, ran into an individual by the name of David Zach, who's a lead singer of the band Remedy Drive. An amazing, amazing individual, although I didn't know it when we first met. But after the concert, he kind of singled me out. I'm not even really sure. It's just a weird sequence of events. We ended up talking for about half an hour. My wife was waiting for me to leave, wanting to hurry. His band was like, "Hey, let's go home. It's Easter weekend."
And he just told me about this organization called The Exodus Road and some of the work he did with it going undercover into brothels to try to rescue victims of human trafficking. I had heard of human trafficking, but I mean, I've heard of Picasso, but I've never really seen any of his paintings. It just kind of really got my mind thinking like, "Wow, this is something I could do." I really wasn't sure what I was going to do when I grew up, so to speak. And so ended up emailing them a couple of days later. And that started me on my journey to becoming a volunteer with Exodus Road.
Preston Goff: (05:05)
Thank you. Yeah. I want to step back just a moment too, and just see if you can take us into a little bit about the very end of your military career because I know you just had some amazing story to share with us as a team. And I wonder if you might just take us into that just a little bit and invite us into that process.
So, the end of my career, I definitely would recommend somebody choosing a different ending when they're finishing something up. But I was on my ninth combat deployment and it was pretty tough. It was Afghanistan 2010, and we were getting shot at every day. I think the three months I was over there, we got shot at every single day, our aircraft.
I was taskforce senior enlisted, for military people known as a first sergeant of a task force of special operations aviation. And it was rough. We got shot at all but one day the whole time I was there and we were taking hits on average about every three days, and so it was pretty stressful. A lot of the guys were suffering from combat fatigue, so I was trying to get out with them about every three days to fly with them.
And unfortunately, sooner or later, you push the envelope and bad stuff happens. And so we ended up going into what we call a hot LZ for the third time. And that was, I guess, third time's a charm for them. They ended up shooting our aircraft down. One of the first bullets coming through the aircraft ended up hitting me in my hand, which really, I mean, I couldn't move my hand for a little while or feel it, but it wasn't that significant.
But about seven minutes later, the helicopter crashed. And that was a little more significant. I ended up breaking my back, fractured my pelvis. But I mean, it sounds really bad, and I guess in a way it was, but it could have been a lot worse. Everybody on the aircraft survived. We were rescued a couple hours later. And of course, went back to United States and unfortunately began the process of medical rehabilitation, which unfortunately did not bring me to a point where I could continue with my military career.
Preston Goff: (07:56)
You've taken us down this story of how you first kind of heard about The Exodus Road and learned about what it means to be an operative. And maybe some people would hear that and would say, "Oh, I could do that. I could be a Delta operative. That's what I want to do." Maybe they feel stirred to do it. And I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about what that process was like for you, of applying, going through the vetting process?
Yeah, absolutely. But let me begin by saying, in my experience when I tell people what I do, the biggest answer I get is, "I could never do that." And that's kind of critical in what the vetting process identifies because there's a very specific psychological model that they're looking to find in an individual. There's lots of people who could do it, but there isn't a lot of people who can do it and maintain their mental health or spiritual health or their sanity.
And so the vetting process begins with your initial contact of, "Hey, I'm interested." And then you follow up with, you'll do a resume, a one-page essay, if you will, or paper, of just explaining why you want to become a volunteer covert intelligence officer, which is what we call our undercover operatives and human trafficking in general. Like, what is your passion? What is your motivation?
Once that takes place, and they look through that and decide whether you're a right fit, you go to the next step, which involves doing a background check, a criminal history report. You're fingerprinted. You do a very, very robust psychological eval. And from there, again, they weed out people they don't think are going to be a good fit for the organization. And once they've done that, then you're invited to come to Colorado Springs for the final vetting, if you will. And that basically involves some briefings and like three interviews with different people within the organization and with a psychologist.
Preston Goff: (10:18)
Do you remember what your process was like when you applied personally? And kind of take us into what you were thinking, what you were feeling in that process.
Going into a special operations unit, you know, there's a vetting process in there. It didn't really bother me like some people, but it was very, very difficult. You talk to people and they're just the most amazing, nicest individuals in the world. But the vetting process, they're trying to find out what you can and can't deal with. There's a lot of people who have big hearts and want to be in that intervention side. I remember going in to one of the interviewers and as I was getting ready to go in, someone was coming out with tears, pouring down their face. I was like, "Oh boy, what is this going to be like?"
And my psych evaluations showed some things that they wanted to test out, and so they like kicked me out. I mean, they were screaming at me, they kicked me out, and so I left that final vetting here in Colorado Springs. I called my wife. She's like, "How'd you do?" And I'm like, "I don't think they're going to accept me. You know, I said the right stuff, but I just don't think I'm who they looking for." And a week later, they contacted me and let me know I'd been accepted.
Preston Goff: (11:44)
So, you make it through the vetting process, and ultimately, you get that first invitation to a deployment. You start participating in deployments. And I think for a lot of people, we're just curious to know what is a typical deployment like? From the moment you land on the ground in a country to the moment you leave for home, how long do deployments last? What are some of the things that you experience regularly?
Deployments are different based on where you go in the world? The majority of our deployments have been in Southeast Asia. And so the biggest thing when you first start that deployment is you're just completely jet-lagged and worn out. I mean you're coming...for our operatives in the United States, you're coming from the opposite side of the world. You're exhausted, you're jet-lagged, you're tired, and you get on the ground and you go right into training.
Because of how we do undercover work with our Western investigators. These are just ordinary people. They don't do it for a living, and so we want to make sure that they're trained and prepared properly for what we're asking them to do and what they're going to see. You go straight into training that first day, and classroom stuff can be pretty difficult when you're exhausted.
And at the end of that first day, we have what we call our baptism of fire, where we take people in, sometimes it's their first time going into a brothel. For those who have done it a few times, it's just to get them reacclimated to the sights and sounds and the smells of being inside a brothel and being around victims.
And so that goes usually one, two in the morning. You come back and try to get some sleep, but of course your body is telling you, you're just supposed to be awake. And so the following morning, you go back right into the training. And we start going over a really that second day about the art of undercover work, the equipment we use, the techniques we use and stuff like that, which of course I can't discuss on this podcast.
And then you go out that second night and it's live, it's full blown trying to find victims, building investigations. You'll be out all night and you'll get up the next morning, and you'll do all your case files because it's no good to find a victim if you can't rescue them. And we only work with law enforcement. We don't, what some people call freelance, that's just not what we do. And so we have to be able to present cases to law enforcement that they can action.
At the end of two weeks, we'll do another deployment debrief, and then we usually follow up. We get calls from a psychologist, we get calls from Delta leadership and the leadership of The Exodus Road. Just, "How are you doing?" Because this is very different than say, being a fireman, a police officer, or a military member, which all have very high suicide rates, because there's not a lot of people who go undercover to fight human trafficking. And normally, there's nobody we can talk to, so we really, really try to follow up and evaluate mental health. And just, we care about our investigators and the organization cares about all of us and wants to make sure we're okay.
Preston Goff: (15:25)
I want to talk a little bit about some of the misconceptions about what a deployment is and what it isn't. I think so often people in the US have what we call the like "Taken" model for human trafficking, the way that Hollywood's portrayed it, or maybe they imagine that an operative is kind of a James Bond character. And I wonder if you would just describe a little bit like some of the characteristics of the people who are Delta operatives.
Preston Goff: (15:55)
In the organization we say, "Justice is in the hands of the ordinary," and we really live that out and believe that. And I think that where that really comes to life best is even amongst our Delta operatives team. I wonder if you might just [crosstalk 00:16:10].
Absolutely. And you're absolutely right. The whole "Taken", that people a lot of times think we're kicking down doors or we're running into brothels and we're grabbing these girls or that we have weapons and helicopter swooping in, and that's not what we do.
It has changed a lot over the four or five years that I've done it. We began with Delta where it was just Western investigators. And as we have grown to all these different countries with national investigators, our role has gone from kind of this lead role to a secondary backup role. Our job is literally we're there to assist nationals and helping push forward investigations, especially in places that national investigators can't go where they need Westerners to go to.
But we are not— I'm the exception. There are very few people who have military backgrounds. We have some military and some law enforcement, of course, but most of our people are just everyday people. We have a lot of pastors or plumbers. You know, you name it, we have those people that do it. And the reason for that is, that's the people who fit the profile. We go over there to pretend like we're bad guys, that we're we're Johns or Janes. Which a John is just somebody who purchases a victim. A Jane is of course a woman's version of a John. But, you know, we have to fit in. And unfortunately that "Taken" mindset, it just doesn't does it work.
Yeah, you know, the reason we can't run in and just grab people is, if I take a kid out, that syndicate is still there. I mean, it feels good. And it's great for that one kid, but the problem is that's still there and so they're going to find somebody else and they're going to put them in there. And so our belief is that by going after traffickers and in the process rescuing all these victims, we take out that whole syndicate. If we don't take a whole syndicate out, we at least take out part of it. And that's less kids that have to fill that. And so by doing so we end up lowering the number of victims that are victims of human trafficking.
A few years ago, I think it was 45.8 million people were estimated to be victims of human trafficking. And with this increase awareness of people who've encountered human trafficking, the last, I think, number was 40.2, so it's working. We still have a long, long way to go, but it's working. And how it's really working for us is this empowering local nationals to do the work.
I can pretend like I'm the great white savior and come over and I'm going to change your world. That's just not going to happen. It requires... People change their own countries. They're the ones that are going to make their world a better place for their people. And we have some amazing, amazing national investigators, people who literally risked their lives every single day and they live in the area that they work. I fly halfway around the world, depending on where I'm going, and I'm there for two weeks and then I leave. They're there all the time, and they're creating these relationships with law enforcement, and with the judicial system and with other groups that are in that human trafficking sphere.
They're heroes, that for me, the tragedy is the world will never know their names. I mean, they're literally the modern equivalent to all these heroes that we have in the abolitionist movement. They're the modern day ones, and the world will never know their name. But we'll know, and we'll know what they did. It's an honor to be able to work with them, and to help them out and to call them friends.
Preston Goff: (20:33)
Yeah. Thanks for that. Yeah. You begin working on deployments as a Delta operative, and I imagine it really doesn't take too long to learn that there's a lot of systems in place that are trying to undermine the rescue process, right? And I wonder if you might speak a little bit about that, but also I want you to tell us a little bit about what it's like and what it was like to experience success for the first time?
Yeah, absolutely. There is a lot. I mean, like you said, there's a lot that can go wrong to do when you're trying to rescue victims and build a case. My first successful case involved Phim, and that was a six-month long case.
I'll never forget the first time I saw him. It was the first time I didn't have to dig for evidence to prove that somebody is a minor or a victim of human trafficking. I mean, the trafficker was like, this is a 16-year-old boy, this is a 15-year-old boy. And we had, I think it was seven young boys that they brought in front of us that that first trip there, and then we left.
And that's one of the hardest things is leaving. You see a lot of victims and your heart breaks for them. You want to do the "Taken" thing and pull them out, but that doesn't put a dent in human trafficking. And so when you leave, you wonder, "Are you ever going to see this person again? Will they ever be rescued?" Because the majority of the time they won't, it's just statistically speaking. I think the success rate across not just our organization, just across the board in human trafficking is 2%.
Preston Goff: (22:30)
And so it's tough. We went back, and I saw Phim again, along with some other kids. And then finally we found that the anti-human-trafficking police, they're like, "Hey, let's action." And so they called me and another guy. We get the phone call, "Hey, can you get a plane in 30 days?" Like, "Absolutely."
We got on a plane and went to Southeast Asia and went there, and it was amazing. At this point, we had been there so many times that they knew who we were and trusted us, and we were always greeted with open arms. And so we went there to kind of set up for the raid the following day. And it was like 50 kids there. I mean, we were like, "This is just going to be an amazing success."
And unfortunately, we talked about there's sometimes there's things that happen. And unfortunately, the following day, they found out that anti-human-trafficking police were in the area and there was just... We show up and they wouldn't even talk to us. There was no kids there. It was just the traffickers. They won't talk to us. We have handlers who are offsite and they were telling us, "Hey, it's too dangerous. The police are saying you need to abort."
And I was trying to like, "Hey, just let us work this. We've been in situations like this before. Let us work it."
And I went to my partner and I was like, "Hey, they want us to abort. It's too dangerous." And I was like, "I might be the lead investigator on the team, but your life's at risk too. What do you want to do?"
And I'll never forget what he said. He was like, "I couldn't live with myself if I left my wife and daughters in this place after only 15 minutes. We're not leaving it."
This particular investigation, we were going after young boys, so these were males we were going after it. It wasn't his two daughters or his wife, but that's how we see them. They're our wives, they're our kids, they're our sons and our daughters, and they're worthy of our effort. And so we stayed.
And after about an hour, finally, someone came and talked to us. And after a few hours, they were trying to get kids to come, but they were all scared. They were trying to get people to bring them and nobody... They knew human-trafficking police were in the area. But after we'd been there for quite some time, the kids started to show up and we saw them coming in on little scooters.
And while this was going on, I found out after the fact that where the police were staged with our handlers, they'd got out of their vehicles and we're like, "Hey, abort. It's too late. They're not going to happen." And so our handlers started typing a message to send to us, telling us, "Hey, abort," to get out of there. "It's not going to work."
Well, we immediately, we knew we had been there a long time so we're like, "We want to buy that kid." And it happened to be Phim, who six months previously had been the first minor I really found. Well, minor that had just said, "Hey, I'm a minor."
And so I typed in, "Hey, we have a victim. Get ready to move."
And so he yells, "Get back in the cars." The police all run around and jump back in.
And so I took him to a room that was onsite there. And we did the techniques we use to delay till the police get there. And 10 minutes later, I had police coming through the door and they had rescued six or seven young boys. They rescued two or three traffickers and Phim was rescued and put into the social worker process of aftercare and all that.
That was my first time that somebody I had sat with had been rescued. And it was really... He's the face of human trafficking to me that I might have to leave somebody, but someday freedom can come to him if we just persevere and go long-term.
Preston Goff: (27:03)
The final question I have for you is this. When you're around this work, it has to have a way of embedding itself into you. So that when you're in the middle of some of the most mundane tasks, there are stories, there are scenes, there are faces that come back to your mind. Things that you can't shake. And I just wonder if you would mind just sharing what is one story that keeps you awake at night, the thing that you can't shake right now that just is driving you forward to continue this work?
Man, that is a tough question, and I'm hoping I can get through this without breaking down. When you do this work, when you do the actual intervention side, because we're just one piece of a big puzzle of counter human trafficking. Donors, the staff here at TER, advocates, all of that makes it possible.
Unfortunately, for those of us who are actually at that end of that chain of people who go inside, the things you see are devastating. The things that a human being will do to another human being, and it changes you. It never leaves your mind. You wake up in the morning and you look at your clock and you're like on the other side of the world. Some poor young girl or young boy is walking into a short-time room with a John or a Jane. You go about your day, and it's just, it's always there. And that's what keeps me awake at night is this long line of faces that come through my mind and my dreams that are still there right now. Phim's what gives me the hope to keep going on, to keep going. Because if I just keep doing it, I can rescue them.
Preston Goff: (29:15)
Yeah. Yeah. Thank you.
Preston Goff: (29:25)
Well, thank you, Drew. Thanks for the conversation that we've shared today. And I just want to say on behalf of the entire Exodus Road and all of our supporters, that we're just really grateful, not only for the work that you do, but the spirit that you have when you do it. Thanks for joining us.
It's been a pleasure and honor. Thank you for having me.
Preston Goff: (29:46)
I hope that this interview with Drew has left you inspired and excited to share what you've learned about human trafficking with people in your home, workplace and community. If you're ready to learn more about The Exodus Road, visit us on our website at theexodusroad.com or find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at our handle @TheExodusRoad. If you'd like to be the first to know when a new rescue takes place, you can subscribe to our rescue texts by texting ER to 51555.
Preston Goff: (30:21)
Until All Are Free is a product of The Exodus Road, a nonprofit dedicated to the strategic fight against human trafficking across the globe. The podcast is hosted by me, Preston Goff, and produced by Isaac Leigh. Our internal themes were produced by Lucas Leigh, and the music you heard on the intro and outro was produced and generously donated by City of Sound.
Preston Goff: (30:43)
New episodes of Until All Are Free will be released soon. And you can expect compelling stories from the front lines of human trafficking rescues, conversations with people just like you who illustrate what it means to live as if justice is in the hands of the ordinary, interviews with our founders, Matt and Laura Parker, and representative stories inspired by the experiences of real survivors that The Exodus Road has rescued. You can subscribe to Until All Are Free wherever you get your podcasts, and it helps us if you rate and review us on Apple podcasts.
When you join our email community you will receive bonus content and special glimpses into future episodes.