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A War Vet, Finding Solace on Trails, Shares His Story on the Screen

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By Bryony McCormick / Trails In Motion 4

“There is zero carryover in the real world for a machine gunner.”

This line spoken by veteran Noah Cass in the film “The Last Time I Heard True Silence” immediately amplifies the difficult reality war veterans face when they are discharged from the military. For Cass, 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 A manual job packing boxes pushed him over the edge, and he became withdrawn and depressed, leaning on alcohol to help numb the new reality he had to face.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, Cass explains how he discovered trail running and 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 to civilian life.

The Origins

Cass reached out to O’Donnell—who had filmed his wedding—when he realized the impact trail running was having on him and how 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,” Cass says.

For O’Donnell, 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 says. “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.”

As a filmmaker, O’Donnell is attracted to passionate people and stories that aren’t quite figured out yet—material that contains struggle, confusion and visual nuance. He was motivated to tell Cass’s story from the start.

“I’m a bum,” O’Donnell says. “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. Working with Noah was incredible. He’s incredibly humble and someone I’d like to be more like.”

The Title

The title of the film marks a definitive moment in Cass’s life—a moment in which his life as he knew it ceased to exist. An enormous blast rocked him while he was manning a machine gun atop a military vehicle. That was the end of his regular hearing and the beginning of life with tinnitus. The ringing never leaves his ears.

“The ringing is constant, sometimes worse than others, but it’s there,” he says. “For me, it’s more than just the ringing; it is a reminder of one specific moment, the moment the mortar round hit us.”

The film captures the relief that trail running affords him—from the incessant ringing, but also from his thoughts.

“Running is therapy,” O’Donnell says. “You’re left with your thoughts and there’s no hiding from yourself out there.”

The Shoot Plan

It took O’Donnell a full year to shoot the project. “We filmed in truncated sessions where I’d stay at his house for long weekends,” he says.

He used an “audio diary” to gather more material. “Hearing about some of the things that Noah saw, felt, heard or didn’t hear, smelled, touched and lost is awful,” he says. “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.”

O’Donnell’s goal, he says, was simple: “To share a positive story about a veteran transitioning home. Although there are some tough and sad moments, Noah’s story is hopeful.”

For Cass, working on the film has had its own elements of discovery and transition, yet he remains humble and dedicated to the overall goal.

“I’m just a veteran that was lucky enough to find someone to tell my story,” he says.

This story was produced by Trails In Motion 4, the international trail-running film fest for which Trail Runner is a media partner. TIM4 will be touring various U.S. and international locations in coming months; check out the full film lineup here, and a list of screenings here.