Judge’s compassionate gesture for US veteran leads to night behind bars

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A move of compassion by a North Carolina judge resulted in an unexpected cellmate for a retired veteran sentenced to a night in jail.

Joe Serna, 41, a retired Special Forces Green Beret sergeant, was given the punishment earlier this month for violating probation, FayObserver reported.

“Every two weeks we go to veterans court, and my urinalysis test had come back positive,” Serna said. “I denied it at first.” Serna was sentenced after telling the judge he had not been truthful.

But when Serna arrived to serve his time, Judge Lou Olivera of the Cumberland County veterans court not only met him, he told Serna he would join him.

Olivera, a veteran of the Gulf War, said Serna was nervous as the two drove to the police station. “When Joe first came to turn himself in, he was trembling,” he said. “I decided that I’d spend the night serving with him.”

Serna, married and the father of seven, said he “couldn’t process a judge being my cell mate.”

“They take me to the cell, and I’m sitting on my bunk. And, then, in walks the judge,” he said, according to FayObserver.

“I knew this was a very compassionate man. I know how involved he is with veterans, and he’s a veteran himself. I got chills when he walked in.”

Though there was only one bed in the stark cell, the 45-year-old judge did not hesitate to take the extra mattresses that were brought in instead.  “He gave me the bunk,” Serna says about the 45-year-old judge. “The judge took two of the mats and slept on the floor.”

The two spent the next few hours talking about their military service and how Serna could turn his life around after circumstances led him down a path that ultimately led to a driving-while-impaired charge.

“I was having a hard time,” said Serna, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from three tours of duty in Afghanistan. “I lost a lot of friends in Afghanistan and because of my injuries from an Afghanistan suicide-bomber, I medically retired and I was depressed and going down the wrong path.”

Olivera said any other veteran would have done the same, pointing out that the story is really about a struggling man who once proudly served his country, FayObserver reported.

“He stepped in there for me,” Serna said about the judge’s compassion.

“I cannot even put into words how I feel about him,” he said. “I look at him as a father. I’ve seen a lot of things, and this by far is the most compassionate thing I’ve ever seen anyone give to anybody. I will never let him down again.”

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Frieda Powers

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