NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A new nonprofit organization based in Nashville is recruiting pilots to help fight human trafficking.
Since its formation on September 6, 2022, Freedom Aviation Network (FAN) has successfully flown 14 missions transporting 16 survivors of human trafficking within 300 nautical miles around Middle Tennessee.
“We’re already seeing that the demand is even greater than what we imagined, and as we do more, the word gets out more,” said Jared Miller, the Executive Director and co-founder of Freedom Aviation Network.
While there are many organizations that are working to combat human trafficking, Miller said a common problem they all face is the transport of survivors.
According to a survey conducted by the Polaris Project, which operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, 54% of human trafficking survivors noted that access to transportation was a barrier to leaving their situation.
Having worked with anti-human trafficking organizations for many years, Miller has seen this firsthand. In early 2020, he took part in an operation to rescue a woman being trafficked out of state. The operation was incredibly risky with multiple layers of complexity.
“We were asked to go in to help get this woman out and bring her to a shelter in a different location far away because of the nature of her situation,” he said. “She needed a way out very fast and securely.”
‘There has got to be a better way to transport survivors’
Miller said the entire operation took over 32 hours with multiple vehicles and extensive logistical components needed to bring the woman to safety. While the mission was successful, he was left feeling frustrated by the danger and difficulty of transportation.
“The nature of the situation was traumatic,” Miller said. “In reflecting on this I said, ‘There has got to be a better way to transport survivors of human trafficking out of their situation or throughout their restoration process’.”
Often public transportation such a bus or train is the only option for transporting survivors, which Miller said is risky in itself since traffickers often use those locations to re-exploit survivors or identify victims.
“Those are the cheapest options, the easiest options to do because a lot of times survivors don’t have identification,” Miller said. “It’s very challenging to put them on a commercial aircraft if you don’t have identification.”
As a result, Miller turned to private aviation and began the process of getting his private pilot’s license by reconnecting with an old friend, Stephanie Lamar, who is a Certified Flight Instructor. She now serves as the co-founder and Chief Operations Officer of FAN.
“She started saying what we were doing, and this flood of people started responding and saying, ‘How can I get involved?” Miller said. “There’s no way this would have happened without her.”
One of those people was Trey Rochford, who had been training with Lamar for years. Rochford took up flying as a hobby in 1995. When Lamar mentioned her new endeavor, Rochford said he jumped at the opportunity to get involved.
“Often times you hear pilots talk about a $100 hamburger where they’ll go out Saturday and they’ll fly somewhere just to have lunch. It’s really a reason to get in the air and fly,” he said. “Well, what better reason can you have than something like this where you are literally altering the course of someone’s life?”
How it works
Pilots like Rochford donate their time and aircraft to provide transportation for survivors whenever the need arises. FAN will post a need and their roster of volunteer pilots can sign up to fly that mission.
Miller said most of their calls for rescues come from national anti-human trafficking organizations. Those organizations receive leads from any number of sources – family, friends, a business owner, a hospital, a stranger — who see something suspicious.
The agency will conduct an investigation and enter the situation in efforts to show the person that there is a way out. Extractions are also conducted with law enforcement going to the situation and removing the individual.
FAN then coordinates to have the survivor and an advocate meet the pilot at a local airport to initiate the rescue flight. Miller said very little information is shared with the pilots in order to protect the anonymity of survivors.
“The top priority in all of this is safety,” Miller said. “We do require that an advocate rides on the flight every single time. We’re not putting the pilot in a situation where heaven forbid, we get to an airport and that survivor doesn’t have a place to go.”
Currently, the service area is directly contingent on the location of pilots— most of which are in Middle Tennessee — but target expansion states are Virginia, Ohio, Texas and Georgia.
The impact on survivors of human trafficking
Rochford flew his first mission in Dec. 2022. It was a high-risk mission that required a detective to accompany the survivor and advocate to the airport because Rochford said her trafficker evaded arrest and was actively searching for her.
“We loaded up the plane and we took off, and this lady was out of her situation and starting a new path for her life,” Rochford said. “It was a very fulfilling experience because I knew that I was helping someone.”
Now, Miller said they have learned from detectives that woman is “thriving” in her new situation.
“It’s very scary for them, but it’s a huge part of their restoration process,” Miller said. “We have flown a mother to reunite with her kids for the first time in years because she was in her situation for so long and not able to see them. That’s very emotional.”
Once a survivor is able to get out and into the care of an anti-human trafficking organization, they are typically provided with full-service restorative opportunities such as case management, doctor visits, therapy, food and shelter and detox facilities.
Programs range from 6 months to 2 years, and many organizations are creating long-term assistance programs to help people who have been trafficked reintegrate into society.
A recent survivor said, “Being able to receive a blessing from those who God blessed to bless me is amazing. I am so grateful for the opportunity FAN gave me to reunite with my family and make amends before my father passed away. I will never forget the gratefulness I felt for that.”
Human trafficking ‘comes in all forms’
The experience has been educational for Rochford who said it was astounding to learn of the prevalence of human trafficking not only in Middle Tennessee, but across the nation.
“Here we are in Nashville, Tennessee. You hear that there’s a lot of human trafficking that goes on,” Rochford said. “There’s a lot of people that are at risk and need to be rescued, but you don’t really see it when you’re walking through the mall.”
Miller said survivors of human trafficking “come in all forms.” Children are most vulnerable, especially those who runaway. Women and girls are more often groomed into sex trafficking, but men and boys are as well.
Often traffickers groom people into involuntary servitude by making promises of affection. After a while, some form of addictive substance is often introduced to aid the trafficker in making the victim become completely dependent on them.
“I can’t imagine anything more evil than someone who could even conceive of doing something like that,” Rochford said. “This is such a unique opportunity because there is such a massive need, and there is a huge desire in the general aviation community to help meet that need.”
Volunteers needed to continue expanding program
Since launching the organization, Miller said they have been able to free up resources for anti-human trafficking organizations “who are already doing everything they can to make sure these people stay alive and take care of them sometimes for even years.”
Freedom Aviation Network has a great need for volunteer pilots and funds to help the program keep up with the expanding need.
| READ MORE | Latest headlines from Nashville and Davidson County
Miller hopes to have multiple pilots performing rescue missions out of all 50 states within the next five years. Once the program is more established, he also has goals of expanding it internationally.
To find out more information about how to help, visit https://www.freedomaviationnetwork.org/take-action-1.