A Fayetteville, N.C. County Judge is making headlines today, but not for typical reasons. Judge Lou Olivera has made an unusual decision, and it is one that many won’t soon forget.
A few years ago, a veteran by the name of Joe Serna was arrested for drunk driving, and as part of his probation, he was prohibited from drinking. So when Serna lied about a recent urine test that showed alcohol in his system, the judge felt he had no other choice.
“I gave Joe a night in jail because he had to be held accountable,” Olivera said.
It was just one night — but as he entered the cell, Serna said he knew it would be one of the longest nights of his life.
“When I walked into the jail cell, and they closed the door behind me, I started feeling this anxiety,” Serna said. “It came back — a flashback.”
Joe Serna is a retired Army Sargent First Class, has done three tours in Afghanistan and has two purple hearts to show for it. The Green Beret survived an IED attack and also a suicide bomber. Though Serna said his scariest moment was the night he was riding in a truck with three fellow soldiers.
“We were following the creek and the road gave way. And the vehicle went into the creek.”
The truck started filling with water, and they were trapped and unable to move, Serna felt the water rising past his legs, his waist, and neck until finally, it stopped — at his chin. Serna was the only one to leave the truck alive, and this frightening experience haunts him to this day.
Serna now suffers from PTSD and has a fear of being in small, cramped places.
“I knew what Joe was going through and I knew Joe’s history. And yes, he had to be held accountable — but I just felt I had to go with him. I felt I had to go with him,” Judge Olivera said.
And so a few minutes after Serna was locked up, Olivera surprised the man he sent to jail by joining him for the entire night. Olivera also knew that being locked up and unable to escape a windowless steel box could trigger painful memories of the night Serna was trapped inside a small space with fallen companions. “Joe was a good soldier and he’s a good man,” Olivera says. “I wanted him to know I had his back. I didn’t want him to do this alone.”
Without telling Serna what he planned to do, Olivera personally drove Serna to the neighboring County where he consulted with jail administrator George Kenworthy – another veteran. Olivera told Kenworthy his plan to stay with Serna throughout the night,
“He looked at me like I was crazy,” Olivera says. “He gave me the stinkeye, and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking, son. I can’t lock up a judge.’
That night the two talked for hours and bonded as they shared stories from their lives.
“We ate meatloaf and we talked about a lot of things. We talked about our families,” Serna said. “The walls didn’t exist anymore. He brought me back to North Carolina from being in a truck in Afghanistan.”
This week, Serna promised the judge no more mess-ups. “I don’t want to let you down, ever,” he told Olivera.
“He did his duty,” Serna told PEOPLE. “He sentenced me. It was his job to hold me accountable. But what he did next,” Serna continues, “it sounds like I’m making it up – and I’m not.”
“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.”
“To other vets: if you find yourself on the X, you need to reach out,” Serna says, “because somebody has your six. Isolation is not the answer. Just extend your hand. Help is out there.”
What a great man this judge is! It’s truly awesome to see this man uphold the law, but at the same time have compassion for the man who did so much to preserve our rights and freedoms that we enjoy because of his sacrifice.