Forging a Bond That is “Tougher Than a Tank”

August 13, 2021

Recently, Michael Azevedo, host of Making Media Now, the FC podcast, chatted with FC members Tim O’Donnell and Jon Mercer from Pixela Pictura Films. 

Tim and Jon are co-producers and co-directors of a new documentary called “Tougher Than a Tank.”  The film’s executive producer is Casey Affleck. The film is currently available via video-on-demand and iTunes.

The film focuses on Noah Cass and Eddie Ryan, both Marines who sustained injuries while deployed in Iraq while Noah’s injuries are mostly invisible. Eddie was hit by two rounds in the head, rendering him immobile and with severe traumatic brain injury. In an attempt to relieve financial burdens and raise money for Eddie’s recovery, Noah embarks on a 145-mile run from his hometown in Somer, CT to Eddie’s in Lake George, New York.

This excerpt of the Making Media Now (MMN) podcast conversation has been edited for clarity. You can listen to the entire conversation wherever you listen to podcasts. 

MMN: Give us a synopsis of what Tougher Than a Tank is all about? 

JON: “Tougher Than a Tank” is a story of Noah Cass, a Marine veteran PTSD survivor who made ultra running a part of his recovery and transitioned back home. And throughout the process of the film, we see him take this journey from his home in Somers, Connecticut, all the way up to lake George New York, which was about a 145 mile run. And a he’s doing this in an effort to reconnect with someone that he served with, another Marine, by the name of Eddie Ryan, who was injured in a friendly fire incident in Iraq, and survived with serious physical and mental injuries. 

In the film, and at this point in his life, Noah’s been doing pretty well on his transition. And this is kind of the first time that he’s really ready to come to grips with meeting Eddie, the new Eddie. And just kind of facing what they both went through. 

And he’s using ultra running, and in particular, this three-day journey from his home to Eddie’s as a way of processing.

MMN: What was the timeframe of their deployments to Iraq? 

JON: They both signed up a post 9/11 and did multiple tours in the early 2000s. 

MMN: It’s so weird to say, but for so many people, the Iraq war now also feels like a long time ago, which is, which is crazy. And when you think back to those years of ’04, ’05, ’06, the levels of casualties were immense on pretty much on a daily basis. 

JON: The Iraq war was a long time ago and certainly in people’s memories, you know, it’s probably a faded even further than that. And you know, that’s kind of the point, I think for both those who served and then also for a civilian’s who weren’t engaged in this conflict at all. It feels like so long ago. And yet people that were involved in it on all sides, you know, the injuries and the care that’s required afterwards, and it really remains so in and Eddie’s case, he’s stable in terms of his recovery, but it requires active upkeep. 

So, you know, a lot of the issues that he’s facing in terms of getting support from the VA and trying to get the amount of therapy sessions he needs in order to maintain where he is right now, a lot of that was a jeopardy during the course of filming. 

Noah sort of found out about this and was really, really upset about it. So there’s a lot of ways to reconnect with someone. He, I think he felt like he physically kind of had to suffer and earn it. But additionally, part of running this long distance was a making a statement about it, trying to attract a little bit of media coverage to this issue. 

MMN: What do you guys know about how Eddie’s and Noah’s relationship developed?

TIM: I think they were like a lot of people that joined the military. You start to find a common people or a new connections, fresh connections that you otherwise wouldn’t have. 

And I think from Noah’s perspective, Eddie had that  exact same humor, where he was over the top; hilarious, but deep down, he had that sort of intensity of work ethic and focus. He’s very poetic, a deep, deep soul, and he can be funny and it can be a hilarious. 

And so they hit it off and attended machine gun school a together. But it just like one of those things where you just don’t where each of you are going to end up. So you could have an instant best friend and not see them for years of duty, with different engagements and different tours. 

Part of the film is sort of unraveling their relationship because it’s been 12 years since they’ve seen each other and it’s also been, like Jon said earlier, it’s like a different version of Eddie. So like Noah has yet to meet the post-injury Eddie.

MMN: If I understand correctly, you guys found Noah first somehow and he was actually a subject of another film that you had made, correct? 

TIM: Yeah, we were lucky to be just in common circles. And we were friends on Facebook and this must’ve been about seven or eight years ago. And he was having a tough time transitioning home. 

He had a challenges with drinking, relationship problems, anger, depression. Honestly, typical out of the lot of folks coming back from service. But he was finally in a place that he was settling, but he needed the next kind of mission. And so posted something that was really funny. It’s something like, I don’t know what I’m gonna do and want to do some creative, maybe make a film. And so I messaged him. And then he goes, I think I’m going to sign up for this 50-mile, like backwoods run. 

And I get that; he was ready for that because once you’re in the healing process of any trauma, it’s like, you can go through that phase, but there’s the next step of what to do with all this? Because if you pause, it’s problematic, especially a lot of folks coming back from service. 

So I started filming with Noah, and then me and John started following this, event and a week before the 50-mile race, he told me he’d never run more than a marathon. In fact, he’d only run one marathon! Which was really interesting, that’s the intensity of a Marine who says he’s going to do something and does it. That became a 22-minute short documentary called “The Last Time I Heard True Silence.” That title comes from NOAA’s ringing in his ears. 

There was no intention to necessarily make a second version of a story or follow a character like, you know, five years later. But I think Noah maybe texted us was like, I’m going to go see my friend Eddie. And I’m gonna run 145 miles in three days. And I don’t think there was much a question for me and John a whether or not to film. And I don’t think the intention was to make a feature length documentary, but we knew we needed to cover it. 

MMN: How did you guys vet assumptions you might have had around what is really making Eddie run, because the film than just the run.

JON: Noah is like such a dream subject because he just, and as a part of his own process, he was kind of doing these audio journals and he was driving a lot at the time for work. 

And he would just just record and just talk to himself. He handed all of that over to us. And the other thing about Noah is he’s, very consistent in the ways that he talks about things and his motivation. I mean, we’ve, we’ve worked with a lot of athletes in the past, you know, both Tim and I kind of have pursued different sports at different times as well. So I think we kind of understand a little bit about that mindset, certainly a training mindset.

But I really think that part of Noah’s personality, and a part of his training and experience as a Marine, like, gave him kind the motivation to pursue the lows. To run for the lows, to kind of chase this feeling of like bottoming out in and keeping, keeping on. He said, “Hey, here’s what I’m going to do,” and he turned up in and he did it. 

MMN: And how much time passed between that endeavor and his decision to set out on this a 145 mile run from Somer, Connecticut to Lake George, New York?

JON: Production for “Tougher Than a Tank” was 2017.  And by that time Noah was able to face what had happened to him, what he had seen around him, but, you know, facing someone who had been injured, that he knew that he cared about, it brings all of the stuff back for you. 

And then additionally, this other guilt about all these years that went by you not being there for that person, or you’re not even being deployed with that person, and you’re not being able to call them cause you were, you know, too lost in your own, whatever, when he got back home. So he got Eddie’s parents’ number at home and he cold called him. And it was like, “Hey, this is who I am.” 

MMN: What are the physical challenges that Eddie is still dealing with? 

TIM: The traumatic brain injury, severely wounded, multiple surgeries, you know, was pronounced dead multiple times. Nobody thought he was going to come back at all. The fact that, you know, he survived that initial surgery is a with surprising him coming out of a coma after months with was surprising. 

And so what’s wild about Eddie is he’s always made progress over a decade long injury. He’s continues to make progress. So currently he’s in a wheelchair. He has the ability to move his arms, his left arm much more than its right. And so, you know, he can move his body in terms of cognition. 

His conversation is delayed at times. Or if he’s out a crowd, he gets kinda overwhelmed because it’s a lot of sensory input. But he is so sharp. And throughout the course of filming, he had all these little jokes with us and he would hit you with a joke right away and a smirk.

MMN: One element that I found really compelling about the film was the fact that a Eddie’s dad is a former Marine. And he shows both obvious pride in his son’s decision to join the Marines but also great pain in seeing his suffer and deal with all the bureaucratic road blocks. Did you guys get any sense from either Noah, Eddie or Eddie’s dad, even of them questioning what happened to this covenant? 

JON: You know, I think what’s interesting is there is an expectation that something should be done, especially for those who are injured. That’s the right thing to do. And fighting the VA is frustrating and it’s emotionally draining at best. But I also feel like the reasons that people serve they’re different from that expectation of what’s going to happen to you when you get back. 

Eddie’s father, Chris, enlisted post-Vietnam. So, you know, he certainly was aware of the ways veterans are treated when they come back. And even the ways in which people who are actively serving in conflicts, which are not popularly accepted back home.

MMN: Neither of you have served in the military and you’ve made at least two films featuring military personnel, either active or a former, as the protagonist. Tell me about the process of winning credibility and winning the trust of these men and women.

JON:  I feel like it’s the kind of a community that once you’re in, you’re in. But I’ll let Tim talk about that process a little bit.  

TIM: Oh yeah, the military community is a tight knit community, alright. So for an outsider, for a civilian, to gain trust and to feel like you’re a part of that community and you’re welcomed is a process. And so we were very lucky though, you know, I, I happened to meet a veteran named Nick Palmisciano well, over 10 years ago, who’s from Massachusetts. He’s a veteran, he’s a producer of this film too. But my connection to with Nick, besides Massachusetts, was wrestling.  I wrestled in high school and college and I coached for a while. 

And I think it just the conversation, the camaraderie kind of went along with our connection to sports. And what’s neat about a lot of military folks is there is a process of training hand-to-hand combat, lot of that kind of falls back to wrestling. And so there’s a little bit of a respect in terms of a sport. But I’ll never compare myself to them. But there’s the shared spirit of saying you’re going to do something and doing it. There’s one interesting thread through all of these films and, particularly with “Tougher Than a Tank,” there’s this aspect where there is a physical manifestation of a commitment to something. 

MMN: You guys are both credited as co-producers and co-directors on this film and you have an executive producer who I’m sure a lot of people are aware of. His name is Casey Affleck. Tell me about how this film came to the attention of Casey Affleck and what that means for the film. 

TIM: We’re lucky that Casey jumped onto this project. You know, it obviously helps elevate the message of the film. Obviously he’s a well-known figure and he’s been quietly advocating for veterans for a while now. And he’s been working with a different organizations. For the last couple years he has worked a lot with Nick (Palmisciano) on telling accurate stories about veterans. He really loves Eddie and knows his story. 

The timing was wonderful that he jumped on and is going to help promote the film, which came out August 3rd. It’s available on VOD, iTunes, Amazon. We’re so excited to get this film out there after working on it for over four years. 

We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation