In 2008, Joe was in Afghanistan serving in the U.S. Army Special Forces. Whilst driving along a small dirt road beside an embankment something sinister happened.
There were four men in the armored car when the road gave way and the huge heavy vehicle began sliding sideways down towards the cold water below. And now, he was taken back there, to that moment. Suddenly, a rattle at the gate jolted him from his waking nightmare. Joe looked up and saw judge Lou.
Back in 2008, Joe and three other men were strapped into the armored truck with doors so heavy they would need a hydraulics system just to open them.
They were driving down a dirt track beside a canal when the road suddenly disappeared beneath them. The truck fell over and careened down the bank, rolling into and under the water– leaving everyone gasping for air.
“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.”
In a daze, Joe realized that the load of gas bottles the vehicle was carrying had been crushed up in the truck. The gas was leaking out into the water and quickly filling up the pockets of air that were keeping Joe alive.
He passed in and out of consciousness, he didn’t know how long he had been trapped but during his moments of lucidity he later told us what his brain had made up in the wreck, “I’d see these things that weren’t there, and I was hallucinating,” he says.
“I thought I had died.” It felt like an eternity before help finally arrived.
His team had found the truck and Joe woke up to someone tugging at him, trying to break him free from the wreckage. Leaning heavily on his team, Joe struggled up the embankment, slow and disoriented.
He looked back to the truck and saw a sight that would haunt him forever. “And I look to my left, and there are three people laying there.” Gutted, he continued.
Joe was the sole survivor that night. “It kind of crushed me,” he says. He lost more than members of his team that night and years later, even after Joe had finished serving in the military he would suffer flashbacks.
The night in the truck would come to him at any time, something as mundane as a whiff of fuel or small, dark places could trigger nightmares and crushing anxiety. He could never bring himself to talk about his team that had perished that night.
Like many veterans, Joe found moving back to the real world difficult. No one could ever understand what he had been through no matter how much explaining he did so he developed a vice that could take away the pain, even if only for a few hours here or there.
He coped with his post-traumatic stress disorder by drinking beer, and that’s where his trouble at home began.
“I wouldn’t drink because I liked the taste of beer,” he says. “It was when I was angry, or if I was hurting.” His habit found him being pulled over for driving while intoxicated and landed him probation.
He would have to go before the judge scores of times, submitting urine tests to prove his sobriety each occasion, but Joe couldn’t give up the bottle and he faked one of his later tests.
Joe had lied to the judge and two weeks later he admitted to his falsified test. Joe apologized to the judge two weeks after the fact but a simple apology was not going to be enough.
The judge, Lou Olivera, believed that Joe should be held accountable for his actions, and as quickly as that Joe was sentenced to a night in prison.
What no one knew was that judge Lou was too an army veteran, if anyone it would be him that understood what Joe was going through, yet here he was, putting Joe into a tiny cell alone or a whole night.
12 hours of reliving the nightmare in the dark long ago. But the judge was not a cruel man, he knew Joe would suffer coping with isolation so he came up with a radical plan.
On the day that Joe was to report to jail, Lou decided to meet him there, mostly for reassurance “When he showed up, I could tell visibly he was under distress,” Lou remembers.
“He was shaking. He was trembling. He was sweaty.” Judge Lou remarked. And this was before Joe had even entered the cell. What would happen when those doors closed behind him? Locking him in for the night.
The walls got closer and if Joe stretched his arms out he could touch both walls on either side of him, but it felt like the cold, dark box was shrinking in on him, this door too was immovable just like the trucks doors had been on the night of the accident.
Suddenly he was back in the truck, cold water up to his chin, the smell of gas in the air, no escape.
The flashback wouldn’t stop, “I put my hands over my head and put my head down.” He was trying to think of being anywhere but here, but it was impossible.
His skin crawled and cold sweat formed over his whole body. The gate swung shut behind him, “It just kind of echoed in my head, I was so nervous,” Joe says.
A rattle at the gate jolted him from his waking nightmare. Joe looked up to the gate, knowing his time was nowhere near complete but praying that by some miracle he could run straight out that door. Instead, he saw judge Lou.
The judge smiled and Joe and Joe kind of smiled back, “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.’” Joe remembers him saying.
This was something completely unprecedented. Lou had never spent a night in jail, much less with a prisoner, but after seeing Joe he knew he needed to help in some way.
“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.’” I’m sure his wife was pretty stunned too.
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 trusting. 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.”