At first glance, former Army Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman had it all -- a hero's story, a seat next to the president at the State of the Union Address, even an action figure modeled after him.
But like many combat veterans home from war, all was not what it seemed. Post-traumatic stress from his time in Iraq forced Rieman to self-medicate with pills and booze, and his home life was spinning out of control.
On Sept. 13, 2013, the Silver Star recipient once feted by President Bush wrote a goodbye letter to his children, got into his car and rammed it into a tree.
What happened next set in motion a cycle of events that would ultimately make him whole again. He survived the crash and was charged with drunk driving. Rehab sobered him up, but the life saver came in the form of an alternative court -- the Veterans Treatment Court -- which has helped thousands of veterans like Rieman avoid jail and get their life moving in the right direction.
Rieman was wounded in 2003 using his body as a human shield to protect a fellow soldier and thwarting two insurgent attacks. He told FoxNews.com there was no VTC in Durham, N.C., at the time of his arrest so when he found out about the program, he enlisted the help of Justice for Vets in getting into one in a nearby county. After more than a year of driving three hours each way to check in with the judge weekly -- plus Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, mentor sessions, and therapy -- he graduated. He's been sober for two years.
"That first year was so critical for me, it could have gone either direction," Rieman said. "The judge cared, he looked me in the eye and was really concerned with my well-being. I felt like I was given another chance."
The courts, started in 2008 by Buffalo, N.Y., judge Robert Russell, provide what he refers to as a one-stop shop patterned after the successful drug courts model. They allow the vet to go through an intensive regime that addresses substance abuse and PTSD, and puts them in touch with the panoply of federal veterans' benefits and services.
There are now 264 courts in 37 states and Guam. The states' local district courts establish and run the programs, funded in part with federal grants. Every jurisdiction sets its own rules, but typically veterans are identified after they are brought in following an arrest. VTC staff determine who qualifies for the specialized handling. Typically, said Russell, they are vets with substance abuse and mental health issues that have led to criminal violations. Many are drug cases -- dealing and stealing. But there are DUIs and domestic violence too.
"We're working with veterans who, after serving their country, are having difficulties readjusting back home," said Russell. "We're addressing the underlying issues so they can regain the stability and have them once again become productive and contributing members of our community."
Justice for Vets, the leading advocate for the courts, estimates that 13,200 vets "who would otherwise be incarcerated" are currently served by the program.
Russell said they expect some vets will backslide during the process. There are consequences, but the goal is to keep the vet engaged. Upon graduation, typically after a period as long as 18 months, the veteran often has his or her charges modified, sometimes dismissed. That didn't exactly happen for Rieman, but he doesn't care. "[The DUI] is still on my record, and I've had to pay dearly," he said. "But what I learned after that one year and change is that I have to take responsibility for my actions, and the pain I caused everyone else."
Russell told FoxNews.com the core of the program's success lies in the veteran mentors, which are part of a support system that includes representatives from both the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and local veterans service organizations.
It's a bridge from the vets' military experience to their current reality, and it makes all the difference, says Gary Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, whose members are among the 3,000 volunteer mentors across the country.
"It's a trust thing," Augustine told FoxNews.com. "Veterans trust people who understand because they have been through the same experience."
Russell says the nurturing process is the least they can do. "As a community and society we have the responsibility to care for those who bear the wounds and ills of war," he said.
Those wounds and ills can be daunting, say advocates. According to Justice for Vets, one in six veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is a substance abuser. A range of surveys and studies puts the number of recent vets suffering from PTSD from 20 percent to as high as 45 percent. According to Justice for Vets, 81 percent of vets who find themselves in the criminal justice system have had a substance abuse problem prior to incarceration.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has introduced a bipartisan bill that would seek to codify the role of the VA's Justice Outreach Specialists (VJO's) in the Veterans Treatment Courts. They pair the veteran up with available services and serve as veterans' advocates during the process.
"It is a sacrosanct principle instilled in members of our Armed Forces: never leave a warrior behind on the battlefield," Shaheen wrote in a recent op-ed on FoxNews.com.
A study published in February by the Community Mental Health Journal found that 86 percent of veterans in the Veterans Treatment Court remained arrest-free during their time in the program.
"If you look at the statistics, [the courts] provide cost savings and have a collective impact on the community," said Rieman, who also has received a Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal of Valor. "I believe in the program whole-heartedly."