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Giving an Iraq Vet a Fighting Chance - Article

Posted By Ashley Taylor, Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Giving an Iraq vet a fighting chance

A FIGHTING CHANCE to make things right is what many veterans in trouble with the law say they want most. And in some cases, they're finding that chance in a special kind of courtroom. Our Cover Story is reported now by Mark Strassmann:

"Everybody coming here for one specific reason, and that's to give a second chance for every veteran."

Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman is a certified American hero, a recipient of the Silver Star for valor in Iraq. But the bravest thing he ever did was fight to get his life back.

To appreciate the significance of the ceremony held in Harnett County in North Carolina, you first have to learn Rieman's story -- all of it, its remarkable highs and sorrowful lows.

"I think I came out the womb with a uniform on," Rieman laughed. "For me, there was nothing greatest than the honor to put on the uniform and represent this country."

Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman in Iraq.
CBS News
In December of 2003, Rieman was on his first deployment in Iraq when his three-vehicle convoy drove into a death trap.


"We were ambushed by 35 guys. Got hit with three RPGs, three IEDs and a bunch a small gun fire," he said. "And I used my body as a shield to protect my gunner, and took a shot in the arm and the chest and shrapnel to my legs.

"All eight of us survived. And for that I received the Silver Star and a Purple Heart."

When he got home, Rieman traveled the country as a military spokesman. He even had a feature role in a combat video game and his own action figure.

And there was one salute he did not expect. In his 2007 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush singled out Rieman for his heroism.

"Tommy Rieman was a teenager pumping gas in Independence, Kentucky, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army," the president remarked. "He has earned the respect and the gratitude of our entire country."

But while he was being hailed on national television as a hero, Nieman told Strassmann, "I didn't feel like a hero, that's for sure. I felt like a complete piece of garbage at times."

Rieman had come home a hero, but a haunted one. He was battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) and alcoholism. "I was drinking two bottles of whiskey a day, and anything else I could get my hands on." He lost his marriage, his house, almost everything that was special to him.

"I was a changed person," he said. "I was full of hatred. I didn't want to communicate. I became the man I never wanted to be."

With his life in freefall, Rieman tried to commit suicide -- first in Iraq, and then after he got home.

His second attempt was on September 1, 2013. "Popped some pills, drank a bit. And went on with it. And got the truck up to 70 miles an hour, and said, 'See ya,' and hit the tree. I closed my eyes. Hit the tree. And opened my eyes and there wasn't a scratch on me. And I was angry about that."

The man once hailed as a true American hero had hit rock bottom.

Rieman was arrested for drunk driving, a path he's certain would have meant the end of his life. Instead, he was handed a lifeline.

Rather than being sent to a regular civilian court, Rieman was referred to a court that focuses on the special issues that confront men and women who have served in the U.S. military.

It's called a Veterans Treatment Court, modeled after other civilian specialty courts around the country -- such as drug treatment courts -- that were designed to keep non-violent offenders out of jail.

"They are unlike any other courtroom you've ever seen before," said Melissa Fitzgerald, the senior director of Justice for Vets, which promotes veterans treatment courts nationwide.

"I don't believe men and women like Tommy Rieman belong behind bars. I believe that the men and women like Tommy Rieman deserve an opportunity for treatment and for restoration."

Helping vets is a new role for Fitzgerald. If she looks familiar, for seven seasons she played Carole Fitzpatrick, an assistant press secretary, on "The West Wing."

In 2011, she became co-executive producer of "Halfway Home," a documentary about struggling vets. One of them was Tommy Rieman.

It's estimated one in five vets who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan suffers from PTSD or depression. One in six has an issue with substance abuse.

Rieman got help with all those issues in Veterans Treatment Court.

"The great thing is, I come in and you salute the judge," he said. "And I thought that was really unique. Because it was an instant sign of respect. I respected him for saluting me."

There are now 220 military treatment courts across 36 states. A judge in Buffalo established the first one in 2008.

When a veteran is arrested for a non-violent crime, his or her lawyer recommends the military treatment court. Many are sent to rehab; others get help with housing and job placement.

They're ALL mentored by other vets.

"There's something to be said about having a mentor in court where here's a guy, another veteran, to look you in the eye and say, 'You need to man up,'" said Rieman.

The program demands accountability. If a vet completes it (which often takes more than a year), the sentence for the crime is reduced or forgiven.

Roughly 11,000 vets are now receiving help through Veterans Treatment Courts. In the case of the first court established in Buffalo, 98 percent of veterans have not been re-arrested.

Which brings us to the moment in Harnett County, North Carolina -- 16 months after Rieman's arrest. It was graduation day for him and five other vets who satisfied the program's rigorous requirements.

Strassmann asked, "Has it occurred to you how far you've come, in a year?"

"For me, it's an ongoing journey," said Rieman. "I think this is only the beginning."

"I've got my life back in order," he said, "and I have a job. I have a home. I'm seeing my kids every weekend. I'm sober -- that's the greatest thing. I feel like I'm living again. For years, I didn't know what that was like."

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