”We sat on the bunk and I said, ‘You are here for the entire time with me?’”
A rather compassionate judge in North Carolina sentenced a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder to 24 hours behind bars and ended up spending the night with him in lock up out of concern for his wellbeing. According to the Washington Post, Fayetteville District Court Judge Lou Olivera, a Gulf War veteran himself, had to penalize former Green Beret Sgt. Joe Serna for violating his probation after he lied to the Veterans Treatment Court on a previous occasion. Concerned about the effects of isolation on Serna’s mental health, Olivera decided to provide Serna with company as he spent the night behind bars.
“(Olivera) comes in, they close the door and lock it,” Serna told WTVD, “and this was a one-man cell, so we sat on the bunk and I said ‘You are here for the entire time with me?’ he said, ‘Yeah that’s what I am doing.’”
Serna served four combat tours in Afghanistan over a span of nearly 20 years and returned home with three purple hearts and other military accolades, as well as severe case of PTSD. Like many others trying to cope with the debilitating symptoms of PTSD, Serna developed an addiction to alcohol. After receiving a driving while intoxicated charge, he entered a veteran’s treatment court program in which he had appeared before Olivera 25 times, managing to stay sober the entire duration. However, at a hearing in mid-April, Serna admitted to lying in court about the results of a urinalysis test, which resulted in a 24-hour sentence dolled out by Olivera. According to Serna, this was the first time he had ever been behind bars.
Fortunately for Serna, an unusually compassionate judge presided behind the podium as he admitted to his wrongdoing. Not only did Serna get a companion for his short stint in jail, the experience seems to have benefited Olivera as well, who reports having developed greater empathy for those he incarcerates. “When they close that door, it’s really, you are shut off,” Olivera said. “I had a more palpable understanding of the issues Joe was going through.”
As part of the court treatment program, participants have to appear before Olivera every two weeks. The court, which is specifically tailored to the unique needs of veterans, aims to instill honesty and accountability into its participants through structured, yet personal treatment. Olivera remarked, "We are more like a family, the court and the team—that makes a huge difference in recovery.”