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There is one day of Joe Serna’s life that has reverberated through every other day since.
It was 2008. Joe was in Afghanistan serving in the U.S. Army Special Forces, and he and three other men were in an armored truck with doors so heavy you need a hydraulics system to open them.
They were driving along a canal on a dirt road around midnight when the the road gave way. The truck fell sideways, slid down the bank and rolled into the water.
“The water starts rising and coming up to my head,” Joe remembers. “I’m having trouble getting my seat belt off.”
His friend jumped back and yanked him up so he could breathe, but now they were trapped.
“The hydraulics [system] is knocked out, and we are fighting for these doors and fighting for these doors,” Joe says.
“You can’t see the water rising because it’s pitch black. You can feel the water rising. Pretty soon the water comes up to a point where it is up to our chin. Then I hear a gurgling sound.”
Joe realized that the truck’s weight had crushed some fuel cans they had with them. Now it was coming to the water’s surface in popping bubbles, contaminating his pocket of air. Joe passed out, then came to, then passed out again.
“I’d see these things that weren’t there, and I was hallucinating,” he says. “I thought I had died.”
Joe woke to a sharp tug. His team had found the truck. Someone pulled Joe out, and he started walking up the hill, disoriented.
“And I look to my left, and there’s three bodies laying there.”
Joe was the sole survivor that night. “It kind of crushed me,” he says.
Years later, after Joe was out of the military, the night in the truck echoed all around him. Something small like a whiff of fuel would trigger nightmares, and he couldn’t bring himself to talk about his dead friends. Instead, Joe dealt with his post-traumatic stress disorder by drinking.
“I wouldn’t drink because I liked the taste of beer,” he says. “It was when I was angry, or if I was hurting.”
Eventually it landed him on probation for driving while intoxicated, and when he failed a urine test despite the fact that he wasn’t allowed to drink, Joe lied to the judge.
Two weeks later, he was back in court. Joe admitted he’d lied and apologized to the judge.
The judge, Lou Olivera, sentenced Joe to a day in jail.
“I knew Joe had to be held accountable,” he says.
But Lou was a veteran. He also knew about Joe’s past and knew that sitting in isolation would be difficult for Joe. So on the day Joe was supposed to report to jail, Lou decided to meet him there to reassure him.
“When he showed up, I could tell visibly he was under distress,” Lou remembers. “He was shaking. He was trembling. He was sweaty.”
Once Joe was in the cell, it got worse.
The door clanged shut behind him.
“It just kind of echoed in my head, I was so nervous,” Joe says.
He says the room was small enough for him to reach out his arms and touch both walls. Confinement in a tight space brought Joe right back to the night in the truck: the darkness, the water, the immovable doors, the realization he was dying. The flashback wouldn’t stop.
“I put my hands over my head and put my head down.”
That’s when Joe heard the door rattle. He looked up to see the judge walking through the door.
“Standing right there is Judge Lou Olivera with a big smile. And I kind of smiled, too, because he was holding a tray of food. He comes in and he sits on the bed. ‘Scoot over.’ And I’m like, ‘What’s up? You bringing me some food now, judge?’ He’s like, ‘No. I’m staying here.’ I’m like, 'Staying where?’ He says, ‘I’m staying in this cell with you.’ I say, 'You’re gonna stay here in the cell with me the entire time.’ He says, ‘That’s what we’re gonna do.’”
Lou says he’d never spent a night in jail before, but after seeing Joe, he knew he needed to do something to help.
“I called up my wife,” Lou recalls. “I said, ‘Honey, I’m not coming home for dinner.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Well, I’m going to jail.’”
Lou’s presence had an immediate effect on Joe. “It automatically brought me back to being a person,” Joe says. “I was overwhelmed. I really wanted to cry. And I didn’t feel alone.”
Sitting side by side in the jail cell, judge and veteran ate meatloaf and mashed potatoes and talked — about their families and jobs, television and war.
Around midnight, the judge put his mat on the ground.
“I said, ‘Judge, if anything please sleep in the bunk. Let me take the ground,’” Joe says, but Lou insisted, “‘I got it.’”
They chatted in the dark.
“Finally, Joe’s breathing got heavier and he got quieter, and then he started to snore,” Lou says. “That was when I felt good, because I knew Joe would be OK.”
The next morning, Lou drove Joe home before heading straight back to the courthouse.
“When I walked out of the cell, it felt like a clean slate,” Joe says. “I was talking to one of the jailers. I’m like, ‘Have you ever seen that?’ He said, ‘No. Don’t disappoint him.’”
Joe says one of the hardest parts of coping with PTSD has always been trust. He didn’t trust people anymore. Lou changed that.
“Just his presence alone shifted my whole mindset. When he walked in, that kind of brought the walls down and built this confidence in me, of trust in people.”
In this case, it took 12 hours — and a judge in jail — to give Joe new direction. How will you spend your next 12?
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This segment aired on August 30, 2016.
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