Will Nugent was used to being propositioned by sleazy men selling women, pimping girls, or offering young boys in the streets of Southeast Asia. But, one night in Phillipines, Nugent came face to face with the victims of human trafficking.
The girls were presented to him like cattle, lined up in home after home. He'd known from the start he would refuse every girl, but he wanted to see how far the rabbit hole went. Nugent eventually ditched the pimp on the streets of Manilla.
"That was just one city. One story," he says now, nearly 10 years later.
It was a stinging memory he never shook. Last summer, with the help of family and friends, Nugent returned to Southeast Asia to help combat human trafficking. That was the easy part. Back in Charleston, he's been struggling to raise awareness and $30,000 to help victims like the ones he saw years ago.
The son of a diplomat stationed in Thailand and Micronesia, Nugent spent his teenage years in Southeast Asia. He was given lots of space to experience the culture first hand, but that included a rampant sex industry.
"It's in your face all the time," he says.
About eight years ago, Nugent returned to the states and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He served two tours in Iraq as a scout and sniper before returning to civilian life and relocating to Charleston to study religion at the College of Charleston and be close to his parents, who had retired.
A presentation last year by David Batstone, the creator of the Not For Sale campaign, about human trafficking and forced labor reminded Nugent about his experiences and led him to do something about it. Nugent was also inspired by Batstone's online grassroots activism.
"Anybody can do something. You just have to take the time to care," Nugent says with a little frustration seeping out amidst the words.
Nugent pored over books on human trafficking, and spent 10 weeks in Thailand and Cambodia last summer, researching and observing nonprofits to find a well-deserving group that's working directly to change the lives of human trafficking victims.
"This isn't about starting an organization that's going to be a competitor to what's already out there," he says. "There are people with experience — what they need is support. They don't need do-gooders out there doing the same thing."
Once he chose a group, Nugent knew he'd come back to Charleston and raise awareness and money for the cause. Another goal of his trip was to find authenticity — to be able to tether his advocacy to fresh experiences.
"I didn't want to say, 'Yeah, I was there 10 years ago,'" he says.
The group Nugent was most impressed by was Transitions Global, which focuses on providing resources to a small group of 18 to 20 women at a time.
"They're not just giving girls a menial job with a menial future," Nugent says. "They give girls the tools to reintegrate into society without having to go back to sex work."
Some of the women become translators, technicians, or culinary students.
As a former advance man for the military, Nugent was prepared to go into dangerous situations, but what he's doing now requires the art of a salesman — essentially marketing good works a world away. It also requires asking people for money.
"That's something I'm really terrified of doing," he says. "So far, I haven't done so well." With a goal of $30,000, Nugent is still about $28,000 short. For a presentation last month, the audience was made up entirely of one Citadel cadet and Nugent's girlfriend.
He says it's frustrating, particularly having to share his unique story to get people interested. But it's easy compared to what Transitions Global deals with in helping these victims on the ground.
"You're fighting drug addiction, poverty, disease, organized crime, political corruption, psychological problems," he says. "What I'm doing is the easy part."
For more info, visit www.fightforothers.com.