Noah Cass, a former Marine whose quest was to run 145 miles from his home in Somers, CT to Lake George, NY in support of fellow Marine Eddie Ryan who sustained a traumatic brain injury, has been documented on film and executive produced by Casey Affleck.
“This incredibly difficult journey that Noah embarks on works as a metaphor for the extremely challenging nature of returning home after service. The distance, the physical distance of a 145-mile run is probably the easier of that metaphor, easier than trying to come back home,” said Affleck in an official news release promoting the film.
The documentary “Tougher Than A Tank” from Pixela Pictura Films is available on iTunes where in its second day of release on August 4 it made it into their Top 20.
The story begins with Cass, a familiar face around Somers, attended Somers High School where he played varsity lacrosse and often volunteered his services in the community.
Cass laughed that he “couldn’t get away with anything” while growing up because his father was pastor at Somers Congregational Church and “most everyone in our small town knew him.”
“My dad shaped my life….watching him pour his all into the church and community. My mom was a social worker, so I learned early from both of them the importance of giving back and being a part of the community,” Cass said.
Joining the military after high school was something Cass noted “I always wanted to do” and was a way to give back to his country.
“The Marine Corps was advertised as ‘the toughest’ and I wanted a big challenge. My family was in the military and served in World War II and Vietnam. I wasn’t ready to go to college and knew it would be a waste of time and money. I just wasn’t ready for it and needed structure and discipline at that point in my life that I knew the Marines would offer me,” he said.
Cass signed paperwork to join the Marines one week to the day before the tragedy of 9/11, and went straight off to boot camp after graduating from high school with the realization that it was “pretty evident” he would be going into combat at some point. When he finished training, Cass chose the infantry where he would become a machine gunner.
“I thought that I would be going to Afghanistan, but it ended up that I shipped off to Iraq and I was there in 2003 for the initial invasion and liberation. It was during my second deployment to Iraq in 2005 that I was on the recovering end of a mortar round. Our truck got hit by a round that blew up right in front of us and a chunk of shrapnel got lodged in my helmet with the blast and concussion rendering me deaf in my left ear,” Cass said.
Despite the hearing loss, he completed his four-year service in the Marines and returned to Somers in 2006 with no visible injuries, but with a common problem so many face after their return home - posttraumatic stress disorder and problematic alcohol use.
Cass said he “came to grips quickly” with his hearing loss, noting “it’s something you can’t fix.” But his posttraumatic stress disorder wasn’t as easily dealt with.
“There was this survivor’s guilt that I was carrying with me when I arrived home from deployment, and trying to make sense of war not making sense. I bounced between jobs, couldn’t find anything I liked or wanted to do, and there was a two-year period where I drank all the time,” Cass said.
He did manage to find some happiness in his life and in 2009 married his 8th grade sweetheart, Stacey, and they are the parents of three children. It was the love of his wife and other family members that eventually set him on a path to wellness.
“It wasn’t what you would consider an intervention, but they told me, ‘You’ve done this long enough, now get it together.’ I stopped drinking cold turkey and ended up running as an alternative, eventually participating in a few long-distance triathlons and an ultra-marathon. I also went to college and earned a degree in psychology and now work for the State of Connecticut in the Department of Social Services. Eventually I was in a good spot for myself and knew, now 12 years later, it was time to reconnect with Eddie, something I just couldn’t do until I had worked through my own issues,” he added.
Cass met Ryan while attending job training school after boot camp. They were both machine gunners who went through the School of Infantry together. While they were deployed to Iraq in the same battalion, Ryan was in a sniper platoon and Cass was a machine gunner in a combined anti-armor platoon, so they were not physically fighting side by side.
“I learned of Eddie’s injuries when a medevac helicopter left our base to pick up wounded Marines, it was hard knowing it was him. Eddie was actually wounded by friendly fire and was shot twice in the head from a machine gun on top of a tank,” Cass said.
While Cass said it took him 12 years to work up the courage to reconnect with his Marine buddy, he did occasionally visit Ryan’s website as a way of catching up. It was December of 2016 when he called and spoke with Ryan’s mother to ask her if she thought Eddie would mind if he held a fundraising run to support him.
“I saw the run as a way to raise awareness for veteran healthcare support and what Eddie was going through, as much as it was to raise money to support his further recovery efforts. It was a way to say that I was still there for him, and a demonstration of how running helped me to get my life back, and now it was a way to help somebody else,” Cass said.
But the run to Lake George that began on May 11, 2017, wasn’t the first time Cass would see Ryan. Prior to hitting the pavement for his old friend, he visited him twice at his Lake George home, even bringing his family along for a long weekend to the popular vacation destination.
“It was overwhelming in a good way. I was happy and excited to see Eddie again and I felt a sense of relief from the anxiety that I had built up over the years thinking if I was living my life to the fullest, knowing that many of my brothers were wounded and unable to carry out the lives they wished for. While Eddie can’t walk and his speech is somewhat delayed, he was the same Eddie, still cracking jokes, including about me not having a clean-shaven haircut, and that broke a lot of the tension,” Cass said.
Back home in Somers, Cass began to prepare for the grueling run made palpable by the fact he was going to make a difference in his friend’s life. He contacted two of his running buddies, Tim Sheehan and Kevin Coughlin who ran alongside him during his journey back to health, to see if they would participate in the fundraising run with him for moral support. They agreed. Next, he asked his brother-in-law Tom Alimberti and fellow Marine Gerrit Christensen to follow them in a van to provide water and meals and any assistance when needed. Alimberti had shared many miles running and bonding with Cass throughout his transition home, and Christensen was one of his closest friends that he served with.
To raise the funds, Noah, Tim, and Kevin took to social media, growing a following and surpassing each fundraising goal they set. Starting at $1,500, they continued to $5,000, then $10,000 and the collection for Eddie grew to roughly $15,000 through donations and Tougher Than A Tank t-shirts.
Still there was one thing left to do that would put a national face on his efforts and the need for others to support our veterans. Cass called Tim O’Donnell, who went to college with his brother-in-law to see if he would be interested in pursuing another project with him. He originally contacted the filmmaker back in 2014 looking for tips to help create his own documentary as he trained for a 50 mile ultra marathon. O’Donnell worked with Nick Palmisciano of Ranger Up and Diesel Jack Media, who agreed to help fund the film The Last Time I Heard True Silence, which focused on his transition to civilian life and the role ultrarunning played in it.
O’Donnell is an Emmy-nominated and award winning documentary filmmaker. His work has appeared on ESPN, NBC, PBS, OutsideTV, CNN Films, Uninterrupted and events around the world. His film “Not a War Story” opened at #1 for all iTunes documentaries and premiered at the Academy of Motion Pictures.
“I told him about the run for Eddie and he got on board, and with a co-director Jon Mercer, they shared the van and documented the entire run from the time we left my home in Somers, to waking up in a hotel the second day, to arriving at Eddie’s home in Lake George,” Cass said.
What transpired during the run? What challenges did the three runners face? What special moments did they share together? And what was it like to finally arrive at Eddie’s house and see his face?
For those and other answers to your questions, visit iTunes or Amazon Prime Video to purchase for $9.99 or rent for $4.99 “Tougher Than a Tank.”
To view the trailer, visit https://www.pixelapicturafilms.com/project/tougherthanatank22