Judge forced to sentence vet to jail, but who was waiting for him in cell—he’s not the same

January 6, 2018 11:49 am Last Updated: January 6, 2018 11:49 am

The horrors of war make it incredibly difficult for soldiers returning to their homeland. After witnessing unspeakable tragedy, reintegrating into society as an average citizen is a challenge for most veterans.

For a solider suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), day-to-day life is replete with triggers that might send him or her into a tailspin.

The judicial system struggles to find the balance between justice and compassionate understanding in cases where soldiers suffering from PTSD violate a law.

But rules are rules, and for that reason, in 2016, North Carolina Judge Lou Olivera was compelled to sentence Green Beret Joe Serna to one night in jail. Serna violated the terms of his probation, and there had to be a consequence.

Judge Lou Olivera was faced with the difficult task of levying a sentence against Joe Serna, a Green Beret suffering from PTSD.


Serna went through a number of traumatic experiences while he was serving in Afghanistan. With a swell of emotional pain, he recalls the moment he was riding with three soldiers along a creek when the road gave way.

The vehicle plunged into the water and started to fill with water. Serna says the water stopped rising at his chin. When asked by CBS how many people got out, he says: “Alive? Just me. I was the sole survivor.”

Serna received three purple hearts during his service in the military. Since retiring, he had trouble adjusting and started to drink heavily. Serna was arrested several years ago for drunk driving.

He was soon referred to the Veterans Treatment Court, which helps veterans get back on track, where he was put on probation and told he couldn’t drink any alcohol. He violated that clause in his probation, and when asked by the judge about his urine sample, he lied.

Judge Olivera, a Gulf War veteran himself, reluctantly handed down a sentence calling for a one-night stay in jail.

Serna violated his probation, and lied to Judge Olivera about a urine sample. He was sentenced to one night in jail.


Judge Olivera says he’s seen a change in Serna in the time that he’s known him.

“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.”

It was obvious Serna was making a genuine effort to get his life back on track, but was struggling after everything he’d experienced overseas. Judge Olivera wanted Serna to know he wasn’t just another name in a stack of papers.

“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.”

Spending the night in a jail cell was going to be torturous for someone with Serna’s past. Knowing this, Judge Olivera did something that the jail administrator said he’s never heard of before.

Knowing that Serna’s PTSD would make a night in jail torturous, Judge Olivera voluntarily stayed the night with him in the cell.


“When he came in, I knew everything was going to be okay,” Serna told People. “I was at peace.”

The two men spent the night talking about everything from life in the military, life in general, and their families. Serna says that he was prepared for an awful night in jail, but having Olivera there made it easier for him.

“He is a judge, but that night, he was my battle buddy,” Serna said. “He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected.”

Olivera, too was touched by the experience.

“I’m a judge and I’ve seen evil,” Olivera said, “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.”