Connecticut Vet copes with experience becoming counselor

By David Warren

Journal Inquirer

ENFIELD, Conn. (AP) -- Noah Cass did a five-year hitch in the Marines and came home with a drinking problem and visions of roadside explosives.

Boozy days stretched into one another. Drives along leafy streets culminated in deep anxiety at the sight of roadside trash; as a machine-gunner in Iraq, he'd seen too many improvised explosive devices rigged to detonate as patrols passed.

Cass became withdrawn from family in his native Somers, detached. Landscaping helped pay the bills but there were too many sleepless nights.

Then his family took aim at him.

"You have potential. Stop wasting it," Cass was told. "You have your support structure here. Use us."

So he did.

With the help of counseling and those closest to him, Cass curtailed his drinking, took up triathlons to help clear his mind, and this month earned his diploma in psychology from Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. He intends to receive a master's in rehabilitation counseling in three years time so that he can turn his attention to other veterans in need of support.

And the need will be significant. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said 6,000 to 8,000 veterans will be returning to Connecticut over the next two years. As is the case with Cass, nearly 40 percent of them will experience post-traumatic stress disorder or partial PTSD, according to the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.

"What I got out of my time in the military wasn't trouble transitioning or trouble with alcohol. What I got was a new perspective," the 27-year-old Cass said, later adding, "The Marines teach you a lot of things but they don't teach you how to talk, and that's partly why I want to get into counseling."

Joining the Marines was an easy decision for the 2002 graduate of Somers High School. His grandfathers were military men, as was an uncle. Although his father chose a different route -- Barry Cass is pastor of Somers Congregational Church -- the younger Cass saw his path fortified by timing. He enlisted one week before Sept. 11, 2001.

"I really had always known the military is what I wanted to do and I saw the Marines as the biggest challenge out of all the services," he said.

Boot camp in North Carolina prepared him for heavy artillery. Cass graduated two weeks early, boarded a ship along with the rest of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines Weapons Co., and about a month later manned a machine gun atop a Humvee as part of the Iraq invasion forces in March 2003.

"It was a life-changing experience but at the same time I didn't know it was to be a life-changing experience."

The toll of heavy fighting kept the tour brief. Cass was back in North Carolina by May for extended training. His second tour began in 2005 when his company was deployed to the Iraqi border with Syria.

He said it was the "intensity" of his second deployment that likely triggered his PTSD. The mujahideen and other insurgents were far more organized, IEDs were routine, and evenings were spent sweeping into villages searching for "high-value targets."

As Cass explained, "Driving down the road, it was not knowing if the road was going to blow up. We didn't have that anxiety the first time around."

Following a seven-month tour, he was honorably discharged from the Marines as a corporal in 2006.

While the tumult in his life over the next couple of years was contained by counseling and family, it was further soothed by his wife, the former Stacey Alimberti, an Enfield native. The couple met in the eighth grade when their schools participated in the same field trip. They bumped into each other over the years and the relationship blossomed before Cass' second deployment. They married in 2009 and are expecting their first child any day.

As he settled into married life in Enfield he also developed an interest in endurance sports. Long-distance running and biking gave way to triathlons. "It gives me an outlet. It gets me away from everything," he said. "It gives me a chance to work through things in my head. And you get the endorphins going."

But as Cass explains, his life has found purpose in lending a hand to other vets. He spoke of dispiriting encounters with Veterans Affairs counselors who had little understanding of combat and its trauma.

"I see it from the veteran's viewpoint where you just get treated like a number," he said. "I just saw it as an extension of the government, rather than a hospital."

Once he has his advanced degree, Cass said he may want to counsel on behalf of a nonprofit but is considering his options.

He said his advantage is that struggling veterans -- indoctrinated to bury their problems behind a tough façade -- will be more willing to open their hearts to another combat vet.

"If you can develop that rapport a little faster, you get your foot in the door in getting that veteran the help that's needed," Cass said.

He's shown a proclivity for psychology and research. He presented a paper at a conference in Pittsburgh and has worked with peers at CCSU on hypermasculinity, a condition marked by an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexual conquests.

Jason Sikorski, an assistant professor of psychology at CCSU, said Cass "stood out in the sense that he's more driven . He has a genuine care and respect for military veterans. That's what I think keeps him up at night and working."

He said Veterans Affairs is severely understaffed when it comes to providing services for wave after wave of returning veterans.

Cass, he said, understands "better than some stuffy shirt who's read an article or two and thinks they can understand these lives."

Published: Mon, May 28, 2012

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