By the time Sgt. Joseph Serna left his position in the Special Forces, he had completed four combat tours in over two decades in Afghanistan. He had nearly been killed on three separate occasions, and received three Purple Heart awards, along with several other commendations for bravery and valor.
Unfortunately, when Serna left the battlefield, the battlefield didn’t completely leave him. Serna has struggled with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. One evening, after choosing to fight the symptoms with alcohol, he was arrested for driving under the influence in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
As part of his sentence, Serna was required to check in regularly with Veterans Treatment Court judge Lou Olivera. And it was at one of these meetings that Serna admitted that he had lied to the court about a recent mandated urine test.
Judge Lou Olivera discusses serving on the Veterans Treatment Court (Washington Post)
In response to Serna’s admission, Olivera sentenced the former Green Beret to one night in prison. Serna was to report to the court the following day to serve his sentence.
Olivera had hoped to use a holding cell at the Fayetteville Police Department for detainment. but when that was unavailable, he called in a favor from the police chief in nearby Lumberton, and arranged for Serna to serve his night behind bars there.
When Serna arrived at the court, the judge offered to personally transfer him to the Lumberton jail.
“Where are we going, judge?” Serna asked.
“We’re going to turn ourselves in,” Olivera said.
Serna didn’t realize it at the time, but Olivera was quite deliberate in his use of the plural.
“When Joe first came to turn himself in, he was trembling,” Olivera tells the Fayette Observer. “I decided that I’d spend the night serving with him.”
Olivera, who is also a foreign war veteran, sat down next to Serna on the only bunk in the room as guards closed the door behind him. The two men spent the night talking about their families, their military service, and the struggles that come with a return to civilian life.
“I knew this was a very compassionate man,” Serna says in the Observer article. “I know how involved he is with veterans, and he’s a veteran himself. I got chills when he walked in.”
“I cannot even put into words how I feel about him,” Serna concludes. “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.”
In jails and prisons across the country, there are men and women who are struggling with their own personal demons. For some, addiction is a real and active fight, as they attempt to overcome dependency on drugs and alcohol so that they can once again contribute to their communities. For others, the weight of guilt for crimes committed is a barrier to moving forward. Still others, like Joseph Serna, struggle with mental health issues that are never far below the surface, with the past standing in the way of a productive future.
In such cases, there is a need for in-prison programming and counseling that can help these men and women deal with their issues and once again become productive citizens. Recent legislation aims to deal with these issues and to provide the necessary programs to make the time spent in incarceration more transformative.
But perhaps even more important to the future success of these prisoners is having the support and encouragement of those outside of prison, like Judge Olivera, who are willing to come alongside to encourage them and show them love and compassion that is too often foreign to them.
Prison Fellowship volunteers serve as the “hands and feet of Christ,” taking the Gospel into correctional facilities around the United States and beyond. Volunteers encourage, support, and mentor men and women behind bars, providing them with both moral guidance and practical skills to be productive members of their communities, whether inside or outside of prison. To learn how you can become a volunteer with Prison Fellowship, click here.