A judge in North Carolina made an unprecedented gesture of compassion when he decided to spend the night in jail with a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who was suffering from PTSD.
Lou Olivera, a district court judge and Gulf War veteran, sentenced Green Beret Joe Serna to one night in jail for violating his probation and lying about a urine test.
“I gave Joe a night in jail because he had to be held accountable,” Olivera told CBS News.
But for Serna, it would be more than just a night in jail. It would be a night of acute stress and painful flashbacks.
“When I walked into the jail cell and they closed the door behind me, I started feeling this anxiety,” he said. “It came back – a flashback.”
Serna is a retired Army Sargent First Class who did three tours in Afghanistan. He had a lot of harrowing experiences, but he says the worst came when a truck he and some fellow soldiers were riding in fell into a creek.
“We were following the creek and the road gave way,” he told CBS News. “And the vehicle went into the creek.”
Serna was the accident’s only survivor.
“I lost my whole crew,” he said in an interview with People. “They were in the water with me. That tore me up. I couldn’t escape that truck. I stayed there until somebody saved me.”
When he arrived back home for good, Serna came bearing scars — both physical and psychological.
“Physically, I was taking care of myself. I didn’t think about the mental,” he said, adding: “I was having issues, and would feed that with alcohol. I thought I was going down the right path. I didn’t know I was going the wrong way.”
The path he was on landed him in Judge Olivera’s courtroom for a number of alcohol-related charges.
“When Joe first came to my court, he was so tight,” Olivera told People. “His shoulders were so tense. Over time, you could see his shoulders relax.”
And while Olivera empathized with Serna’s situation, he knew he couldn’t let him get away with violating his probation. So he made a surprising compromise.
After personally driving Serna to the jail, Olivera spoke to the jailer — who also happened to be a veteran — about his wish to spend the night with the man he’d just sentenced.
Minutes later, Olivera was walking into Serna’s cell. The jailer brought in some mats so that the judge could sleep on the ground.
Serna was taken aback. He asked the judge what he was doing.
“He said, ‘We’re in the foxhole together,'” Serna recalled.
“I was at peace” the former soldier said. “When he came in, I knew everything was going to be OK.”
The two veterans passed the time discussing their careers in the military and their families.
“I’m a judge and I’ve seen evil, but I see the humanity in people,” Olivera said. “Joe is a good man. Helping him helped me. I wanted him to know he isn’t alone.”