In A Jail Sentence, A Veteran's Redemption — With Help From A Fellow Vet

Oct 14, 2016
Originally published on October 14, 2016 1:39 pm

Joe Serna served three tours in Afghanistan as a Green Beret. Judge Lou Olivera is a veteran, too, who served in the Army as an intelligence officer. But when they met, it wasn't on base. It was in a North Carolina courtroom.

Serna had been struggling to adapt to life back home, and, after violating probation on a DWI charge, he was sentenced by Olivera to a night in jail. He would have spent that time in his cell alone with his thoughts, if Olivera hadn't joined him.

One year later, during a visit with StoryCorps, he tells Olivera that the night in a cell brought back memories of war — and one horrific memory, in particular. "In Afghanistan," Serna says, "it was me and three other guys on the truck, really good friends. And I had an accident where our truck flipped all the way over into a river."

Serna says he and his friends were trapped as the water slowly filled the vehicle, rising from his ankles to his waist, eventually to his chin. In the darkness of the moment, Serna says, the air was filled with diesel fumes, leaving them struggling for air.

"My partner said, 'I can't feel my lips, I can't feel my arms.' Then I heard him gasping. And I was the only survivor."

Locked in a cell, confined to a space without windows or a door that he could open, Serna says he would have relived the nightmare all night. That is, if he had not heard the door rattle behind him.

It was Olivera, entering the cell.

"You were sweaty, and you were shaking," Olivera recalls. "You were wound tight."

"When you walked in, that all went away," Serna tells him. "And then when they locked the door, I thought to myself, 'He's going to spend the night here. I've never seen this kind of act from anyone.' "

Olivera knew the history of the man he'd just sentenced. He had talked to the chief jailer, asking if he could enter Serna's cell. The jailer, a veteran himself, "made it work."

During the night that followed, they spoke for a long time. They mostly discussed their families, but Serna says the gesture said more than the topic of conversation; "I felt the compassion," he says.

"We all mess up, we all fall short — I am sometimes not the best husband, or the best father, or the best judge," Olivera admits. But, imperfect as he may be, his decision to reach out to the stranger in jail had a lasting impact on Serna's life.

"Truthfully, that was the first time I ever opened up," Serna tells him. "To trust another person was a game-changer. So thank you for being there for me. It means a lot to have someone in your position that understands."

"That's that brotherhood, the military," Olivera says, "and I get something out of it, too. It helps me think about the things I've gone through, the things I've seen, my military life.

"You're a brother, and I just want you to get back."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. And today, we hear two veterans who met in a North Carolina courtroom, and we hear about the bond they've formed.

Joe Serna served three tours in Afghanistan as a Green Beret. After retiring, he struggled to adapt to life back home, and he violated probation on a DWI charge and came before Judge Lou Olivera, an Army veteran. Judge Olivera sentenced Serna to one night in jail for violating his probation. Serna sat down with that judge for StoryCorps to talk about how his night in a jail cell brought back memories of war.

JOE SERNA: In Afghanistan, it was me and three other guys on the truck, really good friends. And I had an accident where our truck flipped all the way over into a river. And water came in and rose from the ankles to my waist, eventually to my chin. And it was pitch black. The only air we had was now filled with diesel fumes. My partner said, I can't feel my lips. I can't feel my arms. Then I heard him gasping.

And I was the only survivor, so I would have relived it over and over and over again in this cell by myself. It was confined space, no windows and the door was solid. And there was just a small piece of glass you can see in and out, and that was it. But I heard the door rattle. The jailer opens it up, and I see you coming in.

LOU OLIVERA: You were sweating. You were shaking. You were wound tight.

SERNA: When you walked in, that all went away. And then when they locked the door, I said to myself, he's going to spend the night here. I've never seen this kind of act from anyone.

OLIVERA: I knew your history, and I talked to the chief jailer. I said, can you put me in a cell with him? He was a veteran himself. He looked at me, and he goes, Judge, give me five minutes. And he made it work.

SERNA: We had a long conversation. A lot of it was about our families. And I felt the compassion.

OLIVERA: We all mess up. We all fall short - and sometimes not the best husband or the best father or the best judge.

SERNA: Truthfully, that was the first time I ever opened up to trust another person. It was a game-changer. So thank you for being there for me. It means a lot to have someone in your position that understands.

OLIVERA: That's that brotherhood, the military. And I get something out of it, too - helps me think about the things I've gone through, the things I've seen in my military life. You're a brother, and I want you to give back.

SERNA: Well, I thank you, Judge.

OLIVERA: You know I love you, man.

SERNA: I love you, too.

INSKEEP: Retired Green Beret Joe Serna talking with judge and retired Army military intelligence officer Lou Olivera. They spoke in Fayetteville, N.C. And their conversation is part of Who We Are, a series of StoryCorps conversations highlighting the values that make us American. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.