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Judge sentences fellow veteran to jail, then joins him in the cell in a show of support

Judge Olivera sentenced Joe Serna to a night in jail out of concern for the soldier’s wellbeing.

Judge sentences fellow veteran to jail, then joins him in the cell in a show of support
Cover Image Source: YouTube | CBS Evening News

A North Carolina judge displayed an extraordinary act of compassion by joining a veteran he had sentenced to jail. In 2016, Gulf War veteran Lou Olivera, who was also a district court judge who presided over the Veterans Treatment Court in Cumberland County, North Carolina, learned details about a fellow veteran's military history. Green Beret Joe Serna was grappling with PTSD, triggered by a series of traumatic events in his life. He had served three tours in Afghanistan, earning two Purple Hearts for bravery, surviving an IED and a suicide bomber, and was the sole survivor after being trapped in a submerged vehicle with other soldiers.

Representative Image Source: Pixabay | ArmyAmber
Representative Image Source: Pixabay | ArmyAmber

“In the truck, I didn’t know I would get out of there,” Serna told PEOPLE. “I only had one option that night, and it wasn’t a good option. In the cell, I reflected on that.” The veteran was first arrested for drinking and driving, and one of the terms of his probation was that he could not consume alcohol for a predetermined period of time. He was then sentenced to a night in jail for violating his probation. After Serna was sentenced by Judge Olivera, he was transferred to a cell for the night. “He did his duty,” Serna said, “He sentenced me. It was his job to hold me accountable. But what he did next... sounds like I’m making it up – and I’m not.”


Upon learning about Serna's PTSD and claustrophobia, Judge Olivera surprised him by joining him in the cell. “I said, ‘Judge, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘We’re in the foxhole together.’ They closed the door and locked it,” Serna shared, “I said, ‘This is serious.’ He had the ability to get out, but they locked the door.” Describing the moment, Serna admitted he felt peace: “When he came in, I knew everything was going to be okay.”

Olivera brought a loaf of homemade meatloaf and a change of clothes, and the two spent the night sharing stories about their service, families, and lives. Serna told CBS News that once Judge Olivera came, “the walls were no longer there. (...) He took me from a truck in Afghanistan back to North Carolina.”


The next day, Olivera drove Serna home and stopped to buy donuts for his family. Empathy was second nature for the judge, who was deeply aware of what Serna had endured. “I knew what Joe was going through, and I knew Joe’s history,” Judge Olivera said. “I knew he had to be held accountable, but I just knew... I had to go with him."

"I’m a judge and I’ve seen evil,” Olivera shared, “but I see the humanity in people. Joe is a good man. Helping him helped me. I wanted him to know he isn’t alone.” The pair's interaction is a reminder to every one of the importance of veteran's mental and emotional health. “To other vets: if you find yourself on the X, you need to reach out,” Serna shared, “because somebody has your six. Isolation is not the answer. Just extend your hand. Help is out there.” Speaking of the judge, Serna is forever grateful for him and his simple act of kindness. “I can’t even begin to describe the humanity," he said. "Judge Olivera is an amazing man.”


Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 17, 2023. It has since been updated.

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