Compassionate Judge Goes To Jail With Vet

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“I see veterans coming through – brothers and sisters with injuries – I intend to help them find their way again – they’re my comrades, and I won’t let them fall.”  (Veteran’s Treatment Court District Judge Lou Olivera.)

(NOTE:  Be sure to watch video at end of story.)

Decorated Green Beret Joseph Serna has left the battlefield, but the battlefield won’t leave him.  Serner, a former sergeant first class with the 7th Special Forces Group, earned three Purple Hearts during four combat tours to Afghanistan during his 18-year Army career.    He was almost killed three times. 

The Fayetteville Observer reported that on his first tour in Afghanistan, he survived a roadside bomb blast that injured three others and killed one of his teammates.   On later tours, he was the lone survivor when his vehicle rolled into a river, and survived when a man he was interviewing detonated a suicide bomb.   During the roll-over into the river, his fellow soldier, Sgt. James Treber, saved his life by unfastening his seat belt, releasing his body armor and moving him into a pocket of air so he could breathe, then Treber himself died in the accident.

Now, the Washington Post reported that Joe Serna has experienced a helping hand from another unlikely source – a compassionate judge who is determined not to let him fall.

Since returning home, Serner has suffered PTSD and has been charged with driving under the influence.  He entered the veteran’s treatment court program in Cumberland County, NC, and has fought to stay sober, appearing before District Court Judge Lou Olivera 25 times.    The last time he confessed that he had lied about a recent urine test, and Judge Olivera sentenced him to one day in jail on April 13.   But that isn’t the end of it.

The judge drove Serna to the jail, telling Serna, “We’re going to turn ourselves in.”   Serna sat down on his cot in his cell, and Olivera entered the cell and sat down beside him, while jailers locked the door.   “You’ are here for the entire night?” asked Serna.     Yes, the judge was there to stay.

Judge Olivera is a Gulf War veteran as well, and he was concerned that leaving Serna alone would trigger his PTSD.   They spent the time trading stories about the military and how Serna could turn his life around.  The judge gave Serna the bunk, and he slept on the floor on an extra mattress.   He took him home the next morning, with fresh doughnuts for the whole family.

“I was having a hard time,” Serna says about his DWI charge. “I lost a lot of friends in Afghanistan and because of my injuries from an Afghanistan suicide-bomber, I medically retired and I was depressed and going down the wrong path.”   Then he met Olivera in veteran’s court.   “He stepped in there for me,” says Serna, a married father of seven ages 23, 20, 18, 15, 7, 2 and five months. “I will never let him down again.”

“I thought about a story that I once read,” Olivera says. “It talked about a soldier with PTSD in a hole,” he says. “A family member, a therapist and a friend all throw down a rope to help the veteran suffering. Finally, a fellow veteran climbs into the hole with him.  “The soldier suffering with PTSD asks, ‘Why are you down here?’

The fellow veteran replied, ‘I am here to climb out with you.’ 

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