When Judge Lou Olivera sentenced a Green Beret veteran to spend a night in jail for a probation violation, on the surface the brief stay seemed like an easy punishment to complete. Judge Olivera, a Gulf War veteran, is the district court judge for the Veterans Treatment Court in Cumberland County, North Carolina. He sentenced Joe Serna, but also went above his role as a judge, identifying his own personal experience with the struggle that Serna endured in his life.
Serna, now retired from the military, received three Purple Hearts for his tours of duty, but has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the military. His PTSD made him turn to alcohol to cope, eventually leading him to the Veterans Treatment Court where he met Olivera.
Olivera noted: “When Joe first came to my court, he was so tight. His shoulders were so tense. Over time, you could see his shoulders relax.”
Serna landed in court after he lied about a urine test required for his probation and Olivera ended up sentencing him to a night in jail. Olivera said: “He had to be held accountable.”
Entering the cell, Serna became anxious, as memories of his past played out and fear crept in.
Serna recounted an incident in which he and three other soldiers rode in a vehicle that plunged into the water and began filling, with the men trapped in the truck. He said, “I was the sole survivor.”
Olivera didn’t tell Serna, but he had asked the jail administrator if he could spend the night with the man, noting: “I knew Joe’s history and he had to be held accountable, but I just felt I had to go with him.” He added: “Joe was a good soldier and he’s a good man. I wanted him to know I had his back. I didn’t want him to do this alone.”
Serna added, “When he came in, I knew everything was going to be okay. I was at peace.”
Serna completed his night in jail successfully, as the two traded stories about their lives and families. Serna said of the jail time: “He is a judge, but that night, he was my battle buddy. He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected.”
Many people weighed in with comments on the CBS Evening News coverage of the story, with one person noting: “The world needs more compassionate people like that judge.”
Another commenter added this perspective:
“This judge performed an act of compassion. Compassion is when you perform an act of kindness for a person with empathy. In other words, when you perform an act of kindness for a person because you put yourself into the shoes of that person and identify with the predicament he is in. If there is any quality a judge should possess, it is the divine virtue of compassion.”
Others noted how the story moved them to tears, while some commenters shared their own experiences, such as this one: “I suffer from PTSD… this judge is a real human being!! Top man!”