Some veterans struggle more than others as a result of the lingering effects of combat. Joe Serna is one of them. He is a highly-decorated former Green Beret who has served in combat situations repeatedly over the years since 9/11. After being medically discharged because of his last battle injury in Afghanistan, Serna was taking care of his physical recovery, but he began drinking in an effort to escape the mental pains he was experiencing. He had been arrested several times on alcohol related charges. Lou Olivera is also a veteran, having served in the Gulf War. Olivera presides over a special court in Cumberland County, North Carolina called the Veterans Treatment Court. Serna was on parole when we was arrested again and brought before Judge Olivera’s Court.
Judge Olivera spends his days dealing with veterans who, because of wartime issues related to PTSD, have fallen on the wrong side of the law. Most of his court staff are also veterans who understand the issues that many veterans face on their return to civilian life. When Serna appeared before Judge Olivera, he received a sentence to serve one night in jail for breaking his parole. But the judge also knew something about Serna and his experiences in war. He knew that Serna had been deployed several times. In an interview with People Magazine, Olivera said:
“I’m a judge and I’ve seen evil, but I see the humanity in people.”
It was the humanity that Judge Olivera saw in Serna that made him do what he did next.
Judge Olivera could see the stress that Serna was feeling. After he sentenced Serna to serve a night in jail, he drove Serna to the local jail himself. While Serna was being placed in a cell, Olivera talked to the jail administrator, George Kenworthy, and told him that he wanted to spend the night in lock up with Serna. Kenworthy is also a veteran. According to Olivera, Kenworthy said, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, son. I can’t lock up a judge.” Olivera took Kenworthy outside and explained Serna’s story. Kenworthy finally acquiesced to the judge’s request.
Meanwhile, Serna had heard the cell door lock behind him and he immediately felt a depressing and frightening sense of claustrophobia envelope him. You see, on one of his tours in Afghanistan, the vehicle that he and three others were in rolled off of an embankment into a large creek and became submerged. He remembered again how the water had come in up to his thighs, then to his chest, then to his neck before it finally stopped. There was nothing but darkness in that small space and there was nothing he could do. He thought it was all over, that he was going to die that way. Serna was the only one to survive the event.
Serna then heard his cell door being unlocked and opened and, to his surprise, Judge Olivera entered. Kenworthy placed a mattress on the floor for the Judge to sleep on and then the cell door was closed and locked. They were alone. The judge and Serna began to talk. They talked about their service experiences, their families and their lives. The next morning they left jail together. Olivera drove Serna home to his family.
Ollivera, Kenworthy, and Serna have all been affected by this experience. Olivera responded to his own sense of compassion. Kenworthy, too, was given an opportunity to step out of the box, to remember his own military experience and to “break” the usual rules in order to meet the needs of his two fellow veterans. Olivera saw Serna as a man, not just as his charges, or as the alcohol issues he was struggling with. He didn’t want him to feel alone. Kenworthy understood that Serna was still in survival mode, that wartime experiences can’t easily be “turned off.” Kenworthy said:
“Anybody can throw in the towel and forget a person, but the judge didn’t do it. I was happy I had a chance to be a part of that.”
Serna was moved by the humanity of it all. Judge Olivera had done his job. Serna understood that part, but what the judge did after that was stunning. Because of what Judge Olivera and Kenworthy did for him, Serna’s hope for the future is stronger than ever.
Life is more complex than we usually allow for in our dealings with those who break the law. Judge Olivera shows us that compassion trumps the law, sometimes for all the right reasons. The one universal fact that made this story possible is that all of the men involved are veterans. Because of this there was a shared understanding and a mutual sense of duty toward a brother veteran who was struggling. The shared sense of responsibility that we veterans have for one another is a strength that we need to foster in the civilian community. It is out of this sense of reliance and responsibility toward each other that we will be able to begin to help help heal the wounds of war more effectively and more enduringly.
The Veterans Site wishes to thank Judge Olivera and Robeson County Jail Administrator Kenworthy for showing us that compassion and understanding are powerful tools for helping to change lives temporarily troubled by the trauma of wartime experiences. We offer our support to Joe Serna and all other veterans who are struggling with PTSD related issues. We thank all of you for telling your story for the benefit of others who are going through the same struggles. You give us all hope.