A North Carolina judge sentenced a Green Beret veteran to spend a night in jail. But when he remembered his own story and all he had gone through, he couldn’t just let him spend the night alone.
Judge Lou Olivera, a Gulf War veteran, is a district court judge over the Veterans Treatment Court in Cumberland County, North Carolina. He had to sentence Green Beret Joe Serna to one night in jail for a probation violation.
Serna, a recipient of three Purple Hearts, is retired from the military and was having a hard time adjusting back to life after experiencing combat in Afghanistan. Through his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, he turned to alcohol to help him deal with the issues he was having mentally.
This path of destruction soon led him to the Veterans Treatment Court, which helps struggling veterans get back on track. This is where Serna meet Olivera.
“When Joe first came to my court, he was so tight,” Olivera said. “His shoulders were so tense. Over time, you could see his shoulders relax.”
When Serna lied in court about a urine test, Olivera knew he had to hold him accountable for his actions. He sentenced him to spend the night in jail.
But as Serna entered the jail cell, the painful memories of losing companions began to flood his mind and he felt this would be the longest night of his life. Anxiety gripped him and flashbacks began to play in his mind as the door closed behind him.
His scariest moment was when he was riding with three other soldiers along a creek when the road gave way, and the vehicle plunged into the water. The truck started filling with water and “all hope was lost.”
Serna was trapped and unable to move, the water rose all the way up to his chin where it finally stopped. He was the only one saved that day. “I was the sole survivor,” he recalled with tears in his eyes.
Without telling Serna what he planned to do, Olivera drove him to the jail and asked the jail administrator if he could spend the night with Serna. The administrator had never heard of such a thing.
“Joe was a good soldier and he’s a good man,” Olivera said. “I wanted him to know I had his back. I didn’t want him to do this alone.”
As Serna’s mind began to go to the dark place of being trapped in the vehicle and losing his buddies, the jail cell door opened and he saw the judge’s smiling face. “When he came in, I knew everything was going to be OK,” recalled Serna.
“I was at peace,” he continued. Olivera brought him back to North Carolina when he felt he was trapped back in the truck again.
They spent the night talking about their families, lives, and service. The judge knew Serna needed to face the consequence for his actions, but he also knew he didn’t want him to go it alone.
“He is a judge, but that night, he was my battle buddy,” Serna said. “He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected.”
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