North Carolina Judge Sentences Fellow Veteran to Jail – Then Goes Behind Bars With Him: 'We're in the Foxhole Together'
"He is a judge, but that night, he was my battle buddy," Serna tells PEOPLE. "He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected"
A judge who sentenced a fellow veteran to jail was so concerned about the decorated soldier’s wellbeing that he served the man’s sentence right alongside him.
Gulf War veteran Lou Olivera, a district court judge who presides over the Veterans Treatment Court in Cumberland County, North Carolina, sentenced retired Green Beret Joe Serna to spend the night in jail for a probation violation earlier this month.
“He did his duty,” Serna tells 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.”
Judge Olivera persuaded another veteran, the jailer, to allow him to “stay in the foxhole” overnight with Serna.
“He is a judge, but that night, he was my battle buddy,” Serna says. “He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected.”
The warrior connection has played an important role in Serna’s life for decades.
As a young soldier going through the grueling Special Forces selection process, Serna and a buddy devoured the book Five Years to Freedom by legendary Green Beret Nick Rowe – a POW in Vietnam who escaped captivity and later was assassinated – and ripped the book in half so that the pals could read it simultaneously.
“It inspired me,” Serna says. “The Vietnam guys are my idols.”
Like many of his idols, Serna went into combat repeatedly. Each deployment brought honor – and a measure of pain.
“I lost so many friends,” Serna tells PEOPLE. “I was medevaced [medically evacuated] after some guy dropped a grenade on me. In the process, I lost a bunch of guys right next to me.”
In one horrific incident, Serna and his fellow soldiers were trapped overnight inside a vehicle submerged in water.
Everyone but Serna died.
“I lost my whole crew,” Serna says. “They were in the water with me. That tore me up. I couldn’t escape that truck. I stayed there until somebody saved me.”
Later, Serna was wounded and required surgery.
Afterwards, when he was medically retired, he paid attention only to some of his ailments.
“Physically, I was taking care of myself,” Serna says. “I didn’t think about the mental.”
Still, mental ailments made themselves known.
“I was having issues, and would feed that with alcohol,” Serna says. “I thought I was going down the right path. I didn’t know I was going the wrong way.”
Serna’s path eventually brought him to the Veterans Treatment Court, a relatively new branch of the court system in various jurisdictions, including Cumberland County, North Carolina.
The special courts aim to help struggling veterans get back on track.
The court officials are mostly veterans who understand the dynamics of military service, says Judge Olivera. “We jell as a team,” he says.
Olivera saw the team’s positive impact on Serna, who was on probation for several alcohol-related offenses.
“When Joe first came to my court, he was so tight,” Olivera says. “His shoulders were so tense. Over time, you could see his shoulders relax.”
But, Olivera says: “Everybody is human. People make mistakes.”
When Serna violated his probation over a urinalysis test, Olivera knew he had to hold the veteran accountable.
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 neighboring Robeson County. There, Olivera consulted jail administrator George Kenworthy – another veteran – and told him he wanted to spend the night in lockup with Serna.
“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.’ ”
“I never heard of such a thing,” Kenworthy tells PEOPLE.
The two men went outside to talk. Olivera explained Serna’s story.
“Give me 10 minutes,” Kenworthy told the judge. “I’ll get y’all a cell.”
Unaware of what was transpiring outside, Serna settled in for his stretch in jail. He began to think about the night he was trapped with his fallen men inside the submerged vehicle.
“In the truck, I didn’t know I would get out of there,” Serna says. “I only had one option that night, and it wasn’t a good option. In the cell, I reflected on that.”
As his mind went into dark places, Serna heard his cell door rattle. He looked up and, to his shock, saw the smiling face of Judge Olivera.
“I said, ‘Judge, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘We’re in the foxhole together.’ ”
Olivera stepped inside. Kenworthy brought in mats so that the judge could sleep on the floor, as per his request.
“They closed the door and locked it,” Serna says. “I said, ‘This is serious.’ He had the ability to get out, but they locked the door.”
Serna asked his new cellmate: “Judge, are you afraid?”
“No,” Olivera replied. “Are you?”
“No,” Serna told him.
“I was at peace,” Serna says. “When he came in, I knew everything was going to be okay.”
The two spent the night talking about their service, their families and their lives.
The next day, the veterans left lockup together. Olivera drove his cellmate home, and stopped off to buy donuts for the Serna family.
The jail sentence is over, but now all three men say the experience enriched them.
“I’m a judge and I’ve seen evil,” Olivera says, “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.”
That matters very much to soldiers, Kenworthy says.
“Joe was in a war zone,” Kenworthy says. “He was in a survival mode. You don’t just turn off all the stuff you’ve seen and been through. Anybody can throw in the towel and forget about a person, but the judge didn’t do it. I was happy I had the chance to be part of that.”
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“I can’t even begin to describe the humanity,” Serna says. “Judge Olivera is an amazing man.”
Serna hopes that his story will reach other veterans who may be struggling.
“To other vets: if you find yourself on the X, you need to reach out,” Serna says, “because somebody has your six.”
Adds Serna: “Isolation is not the answer. Just extend your hand. Help is out there.”