Veterans: You’re Not Alone

As he called his docket, Judge Lou Olivera glanced over his Cumberland County, North Carolina courtroom and saw the man visibly shaking, his eyes dull and fixed in a steady gaze into oblivion. A former Green Beret, Olivera had seen that “thousand-yard stare” before, from men he’d served with to the veterans who appeared in his court.

The disheveled, trembling defendant in his early 40s was there on a probation violation—a positive drug test—but he was clearly battling other demons as well. Post-traumatic stress disorder, the judge figured. Calling Joseph Serna up to the bench, he said, “You tested dirty; you told this court last time you were going to stay clean.” Then he softened his tone. “I’m sentencing you to a night in lockup; just the one. Step back and the sheriff’s office will take care of you.” Head down, Serna nodded and shuffled off.

But at the jail that evening, the troubled vet was in for a surprise. There was the judge. “I felt I had to go with him,” Olivera said. “I thought about a story that I once read about a soldier with PTSD in a hole. A family member, a therapist, and a friend all throw down a rope to help the veteran suffering. Finally, a fellow veteran climbs into the hole with him. The soldier suffering with PTSD asks, ‘Why are you down here?’ The fellow veteran replied, ‘I’m here to climb out with you.’”1

From five o’clock that evening until 6:30 the following morning, the two talked—not as judge and defendant, but as fellow vets. They spoke of Serna’s three tours in Afghanistan, the alcohol and drug battles he’d fought since returning stateside, the buddies they’d both lost overseas, the family members who didn’t understand what it was like over there. After the dawn broke and the two parted ways, Olivera was asked what had motivated him to take the unusual step of serving the time with Serna. The Gulf War vet said, “Many veterans would have done the same. They would have gotten in the hole to help. And so did I.”2

The compassion displayed by Olivera may have been extraordinary, but the legal system’s efforts to address the problems many veterans face is widespread. In Texas, the Legislature authorized the creation of special veterans courts in 2009 with Senate Bill 1940 (now chapter 617 of the Texas Health and Safety Code). Using a team-based approach to combat the risk factors that can lead to criminal behavior, the program connects troubled vets with alcohol and substance abuse treatment, counseling services, and resources like job fairs. The treatment is individualized, but the veterans attend veterans court sessions every two weeks for the varying length of their programs so that the judge can monitor their progress.

Today, Texas’ veterans court program is in at least 20 counties, including Dallas, Bexar, Harris, Travis, and El Paso. In addition, there’s Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, an initiative modeled after a Houston Bar Association program to provide pro bono civil legal assistance to veterans and their families. TLTV, which was started in 2010 by the State Bar under then-President Terry Tottenham, is a collaborative effort with local bar associations, legal aid organizations, and veterans groups to host legal clinics throughout Texas.

As we mark yet another Veterans Day while brave U.S. servicemen and servicewomen are serving overseas, let’s do more as lawyers than just acknowledge our veterans’ service and sacrifices. For those in need, especially those caught in the downward spiral of PTSD, let’s help them climb out of the hole.

For more information on how to help veterans, go to

John G. Browning

Chair, Texas Bar Journal Board of Editors

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