A judge’s act of compassion has a former Fort Bragg soldier promising to get his life back on track. Cumberland County judge, Judge Olivera, sentenced veteran Joseph Serna to spend one night in jail for a probation violation, but the former soldier was shocked when the judge served the time with him. Serna turned to heavy alcohol abuse after his four deployments, and received the jail sentence for a parole violation for lying during court. However, Judge Olivera, a Gulf War veteran, was worried that time in isolation would be damaging for a solider with mental health issues.
Speaking to PEOPLE, Serna said, “He did his duty. He sentenced me. It was his job to hold me accountable. But what he did next, it sounds like I’m making it up and I’m not. He is a judge, but that night, he was my battle buddy,” Serna continued, “He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected.”
Each deployment brought honor and a measure of pain every time Serna got deployed. He recalled, “I lost so many friends. I was medevaced [medically evacuated] after some guy dropped a grenade on me. In the process, I lost a bunch of guys right next to me.”
In another terrifying incident, Serna and his fellow soldiers were trapped overnight inside a vehicle submerged in water. Everyone died except Serna. He said, “I lost my whole crew. They were in the water with me. That tore me up. I couldn’t escape that truck. I stayed there until somebody saved me.”
A while later, Serna was wounded and required surgery. Afterwards, when he was medically retired, he paid attention only to some of his ailments. “Physically, I was taking care of myself. I didn’t think about the mental.” Serna said. It was because of the severe PTSD that Serna turned to alcohol as a way to deal with his mental scars. “I was having issues, and would feed that with alcohol,” Serna says. “I thought I was going down the right path. I didn’t know I was going the wrong way.”
Eventually Serna ended up in Veterans Treatment Court, a relatively new branch of the court system in various jurisdictions, including Cumberland County, North Carolina. The special courts aim to help struggling veterans get back on track. The court officials are mostly veterans who understand the dynamics of military service.
Judge Olivera saw the team’s positive impact on Serna, who was on probation for several alcohol-related offenses. But,Judge Olivera says, “Everybody is human. People make mistakes.” When Serna violated his probation over a urinalysis test, Olivera knew he had to hold the veteran accountable.
The judge also knew that being locked up and unable to escape a windowless steel box could trigger painful memories from his days on the battle field. So he personally drove Serna to Robeson County. There, he consulted jail administrator George Kenworthy and told him he wanted to spend the night in lockup with Serna.
“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.” The two spent the night talking about their service, their families and their lives. The next day, they left lockup together. Judge Olivera drove his cellmate home, and stopped off to buy donuts for the Serna family.