Cumberland County, North Carolina Judge Lou Olivera sentenced Green Beret veteran Joe Serna to a night in prison for violating his probation — then spent that night with him in the cell.
Joe Serna retired from the military after the war in Afghanistan, with three Purple Hearts. His time in the middle east was punctuated by the slow drowning of his brothers in arms around him, as the vehicle in which they rode sank into murky water. The road beneath it had collapsed, and Serna himself only survived because the water stopped rising when it reached his chin. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has haunted Serna ever since his return, and the former Green Beret turned to alcohol in an attempt to numb his suffering.
Serna was arrested for drunk driving, and given several years’ probation. One of the conditions of his punishment was that he would be prohibited from drinking for the duration. When the veteran failed a urine test and lied about it, Judge Olivera knew that he had to be held accountable. This is where, in most cases, such a story would end. But Olivera, a veteran of the Gulf War, appended an act of extraordinary compassion to his verdict.
The Veterans Treatment Court judge drove to the jail in which Serna was being held, and asked the administrator that he be allowed to share Serna’s cell for the duration of his stay. As Serna began to suffer flashbacks of the slow death of his friends around him, Olivera appeared to walk him through the night. “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 remainder of the night was spent in conversation about their lives, their families, and their shared service. Afterward, Serna said, “he is a judge, but that night, he was my battle buddy. He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected.”
According to statistics from PTSD United, Serna is one of roughly 8% of Americans who struggle with PTSD. Since its first official recognition as a distinct disorder in 1980, the disorder has become a widely recognized result of events which include “combat experience, but also terrorist attacks, natural disasters, serious accidents, assault or abuse, or even sudden and major emotional losses.” Nevertheless, it has long carried a discouraging stigma that has and continues to isolate its victims.
Further, according to Veterans Affairs, “experts estimate that up to 20% of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, up to 10% of Gulf War veterans, and up to 30% of Vietnam War veterans have experienced PTSD.” The numbers of women in the military suffering PTSD are even higher; 71% of female veterans struggle with post traumatic stress, due to sexual assault.
All too many of the brave people who have stood to defend our country return home haunted, reliving a perpetual war inside their own minds. Joe Serna is one of those men, but Judge Olivera made sure that, at least for one night, he wasn’t fighting alone.