“There is zero carryover in the real world for a machine gunner.” This definitive line spoken by veteran Noah Cass in The Last Time I Heard True Silence immediately amplifies the difficult reality war veterans face when they are discharged from the military. For Noah, his transition was as tough as the next and landing his feet on the ground and facing life as a civilian was overwhelming. A manual job packing boxes pushed him over the edge, and he became withdrawn and depressed – leaning on alcohol to help numb the new reality he had to face. In the film Noah explains when he discovered trail running, and realised the positive effect it had on himself and his transition. Director Tim O’Donnell uses his story to portray how trail running can and is being used as a form of therapy, a vehicle to offload frustrations and overcome trauma, and ultimately transition from veteran life into civilian life.
Noah used Tim to film his wedding, and reached out to him when he realised what a positive effect the trail running was having on him, and that it could potentially help other veterans struggling to transition.
“I randomly reached out to Tim and asked if he had any pointers for me, as I was starting the build up for a 50 mile race and I wanted to document it with a little camera we had.”
For Tim the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
“I had been making short films for a veteran-owned company called Ranger Up when Noah sent me a Facebook message. He said he wanted to do something creative and give back to the veteran community by telling a veteran transition story. He mentioned a 50-mile race he was training for and right then I knew there was something interesting about this journey and his selflessness.”
Tim, who when it comes to documenting stories is attracted to passionate people, stories that aren’t quite figured out yet, struggle, confusion, and visual nuance, was motivated to tell Noah’s story from the start.
“I’m a bum. I never served or contributed to our country like Noah did. I wanted to tell a veteran transition story as truly as possible and to inspire as many veterans as possible,” he said. “Working with Noah was incredible. He’s incredibly humble and someone I’d like to be more like.”
Noah Cass | Photo by Tim O'Donnell
The title of the film marks a definitive moment in Noah’s life, a moment in fact where his life as he knew it ceased to exist. An enormous blast in combat rocked Noah while he was manning a machinegun atop a military vehicle. The end of having regular hearing and the beginning of life with tinnitus, a condition that results in constant ringing in the ears.
“The ringing is constant, sometimes worse than others, but it's there. For me, it's more than just the ringing - it is a reminder of one specific moment, the moment the mortar round hit us.”
In the film you discover the relief that trail running affords Noah, not only from the incessant ringing, but from his thoughts too.
“Running is therapy,” agrees Tim. “You’re left with your thoughts and there’s no hiding from yourself out there. As a veteran I can only imagine how difficult it is to transition home. Months, sometimes years of training to prepare for battle that may last years, maybe a decade, and then coming home with zero days of training on how to reintegrate into society. It’s awful. But I can see how running can help to organise thoughts, confusion, chaos, etc in a daily way.”
Reliving the past
Tim goes on to comment about Noah’s experiences, and the act of reliving them for the film.
“Hearing about some of the things that Noah saw, felt, heard or didn’t hear, smelled, touched and lost is awful. There was so much to say and understand so we created an audio diary system. After long runs Noah would record his thoughts on his iPhone and send them to me. It was like a headphone into his brain and thoughts. He made over 40 audio diaries and we only used a piece of one for the film.”
Tim O'Donnell frames one of the scenes while shooting | Photo Noah Cass
The Shoot Plan
It took Tim a full year to shoot the project. “We filmed in truncated sessions where I’d stay at his house for long weekends. Everything was shot on the Canon C100 and 7D. We used a slider and steadicam for some of the running shots as well. I used a second cameraman to help film the race.”
And the goal, simple: “To share a positive story about a veteran transitioning home. Although there are some tough and sad moments, Noah’s story is hopeful. I want people who see this to feel what they feel and react to what they see.”
For Noah, trail running has saved him in a sense. You can literally feel his jaw clench when asked where he’d be without it.
“Not where I am today, so I don't even entertain the thoughts.”
Working on the film has been a journey of discovery and transition, yet Noah remains humble and dedicated to the overall goal.
“I'm just a veteran that was lucky enough to find someone to tell my story. It's very cool to see the places that Trails In Motion screenings are happening, knowing that veteran and other issues are reaching a global audience.”
Tim is currently in post-production for a feature length documentary film “Behind Range 15” about a group of veterans making a zombie apocalypse film in Hollywood. If you’d like to check out more of his films visit www.pixelapictura.com
Noah, now a trail runner for life, has recently welcomed his second child, a daughter, into the world. For Noah, trail running is a part of his life now, his therapy and time to reflect. He has entered another 50K since and a 24-hour race in August. Follow Noah’s trail journeys on Instagram @blueblaze_runner