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.