Joe Serna escaped death so many times while deployed with the Army’s Special Forces. He was blown up by explosive devices on multiple occasions over three combat deployments to Afghanistan. One threw him from his vehicle, another nearly drowned him in an MRAP in an irrigation canal, and a Taliban fighter detonated a grenade in his face. Like many combat veterans of his caliber, both mental and physical wounds followed him home.
After his medical retirement, alcohol-related events landed him in hot water with the law until the day he violated his probation and ended up in front of North Carolina Judge Lou Olivera.
Serna’s MRAP was thrown into a canal by an IED in 2008. Three other soldiers drowned, including one who rescued Serna.
In 2016, Serna’s record of offenses and failure to follow his probation put him in front of a North Carolina Veterans Treatment Court, a system of justice designed to hold returning veterans accountable for their behavior while accepting the special set of circumstances they might be struggling with in their daily life. Veterans Treatment Courts demand mandatory appearances, drug and alcohol testing, and a structure similar to the demands of the service.
Judge Lou Olivera was presiding over Cumberland County, North Carolina’s veterans treatment courts. Olivera is a veteran of the Gulf War and is especially suited to handle cases like Serna’s. The judge ordered the green beret to spend 24 hours in jail for his probation violation, not anything unusual for a judge to do. What Olivera did next is what makes his court exceptional.
Olivera convinced Serna’s jailer, also a veteran, to allow the judge to share Serna’s sentence. Judge Olivera was volunteering to be a battle buddy for the green beret while he did his time. The judge drove Serna to the neighboring county lockup, where jail administrator George Kenworthy put them both in jail for the night.
“He did his duty,” Serna told People Magazine. “He sentenced me. It was his job to hold me accountable. He is a judge, but that night he was my battle buddy. He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected.”
Serna had no idea Judge Olivera planned to share his sentence as the two drove to the Robeson County, N.C. jail. Olivera knew of Serna’s combat records, and that the green beret spent a night in a submerged in an MRAP, struggling to stay in an air pocket, with the bodies of his drowned compatriots around him. So a night spent in a cramped box seemed like a harsh sentence that could trigger harsher thoughts, but the judge knew the soldier had to be held accountable. So he decided he wouldn’t be alone in the box.
“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… I’m a judge and I’ve seen evil, 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.”