Durham County

At this T-shirt and film company, veterans get the jokes and more

Noah Cass always knew he wanted to be a Marine, in the infantry and a machine gunner.

He became all three, and deployed to Iraq for the United States’ initial invasion in the war in 2003. Cass was deployed again in 2005 when a mortar hit in front of the truck he was in. He was injured, returned home and ended up leaving the Marines.

After a rough few years, he stopped drinking, started running and went back to school. Trail running is the only time he says the ringing in his ears lessens and even stops.

Cass is the subject of two episodes in a documentary series in development by Ranger Up, a patriotic military and MMA (mixed martial arts) apparel company based in Durham.

Led by veteran Nick Palmisciano, Ranger Up has a large social media following. Its Facebook page, with almost a million likes, features funny and serious videos, memes, satirical posts and yes, ads for its T-shirts, too.

“They get it,” Cass said. “They’ve walked the walk. They’ve taken off their boots and put on civilian clothes.” Ranger Up videos make fun of other military branches, but in the end they’re together and supportive of each other, he said.

“Military humor transfers over if you have the right crowd,” he said.

Ranger Up has 11 employees, most of them veterans, and sells T-shirts and metal signs like “In Case of Shooter Get Behind Me” and “Fort Benning School for Wayward Boys.” Fort Benning is where the Army’s Officer Candidate School is located.

Palmisciano, a West Point graduate, served in the Army infantry from 1998 to 2003 and was Ranger-qualified. In the past few years, he has expanded Ranger Up into film, including “Range 15,” a military zombie satire, and the recent “Not A War Story,” which is a feature-length documentary behind-the-scenes of “Range 15.”

Both feature actors William Shatner and Sean Astin, but most of the actors in the film are veterans, not professional actors. Also featured in the films is Ranger Up partial owner and veteran Tim Kennedy, the MMA and UFC fighter.

“When you leave the military, it is a very bittersweet moment,” Palmisciano said.

“The number one thing the military provides is unity and shared purpose,” Palmisciano said. “What you do next won’t be as important as what you were doing.” Being in the military is the only time in your life other people are depending on you for their lives, he said. Being in the military means you are serving your country and a greater good.

“The second you leave the military, all of that goes away,” he said.

When Palmisciano got out of the military, he went to Duke for his MBA. It was the middle of the Iraq War, and it was popular at the time to bash the war and President George W. Bush, he said.

Those discussions are fine, he said, but the critics had never worn a uniform and he was sitting in class getting notifications that people who had served under him had been killed, Palmisciano said.

Because of that, “I can’t not have an attitude.”

Your whole world

Ranger Up’s building on East Trinity Avenue is a mix of warehouse and office space. In a darkened, air-conditioned room, Aaron Provost is one of two designers.

Provost was a forward observer in the Army, which he describes as being the artillery’s eyes on the ground. He spent a year deployed to Baghdad, Iraq.

When you’re in the Army, that’s your whole world, Provost said. You do everything with your friends. When he got out in 2007, he became a firefighter, but it wasn’t the same. So he went to art school. Already making military art, he kept doing that.

Many Ranger Up designs are inside jokes.

Like: “Atropia Veteran.” Atropia is a fake country used in military training. Other places used in training are Krasnovia and Pineland.

Or the dark joke of war tourism like a T-shirt about “Baghdad Summer Camp.”

Dark jokes help deal with serious situations.

Provost, 34, was wounded in Baghdad, and his first reaction was to laugh really hard and say, like he was in “Monty Python,” that “ ‘Tis just a flesh wound.”

It was, actually. Shrapnel went into the side of his body. And out of it.

“I still call it my drive-by hip piercing,” Provost said.

Phil Null, 29, a medic in the Army National Guard from 2006 to 2012, is the warehouse manager at Ranger Up.

“I wanted to work here to get my foot into the veteran-owned business community,” Null said as he unpacked a shipment of one of their best-selling T-shirts, with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ quote: “I Keep Other People Awake at Night.”

Null said working with other veterans helped him re-establish the teamwork basis he had in the military.

Ranger Up’s Facebook page lets fans know what they’re selling, but social media can be an echo chamber, Palmisciano said. So no political posts from Ranger Up.

“There are a whole lot of veterans who are Republican, Democrat and Libertarian,” he said. Endorsing a political persuasion would be disrespectful to those veterans, a disservice to the community and only increase the stereotype of a person in the military.

‘22 for 22’

Palmisciano’s latest venture into video is the documentary series featuring Cass, the Iraq veteran, and many more veterans’ stories.

“22 for 22” is a documentary series like ESPN’s “30 for 30,” but instead of sports its focus is veterans’ stories of struggle and inspiration. The number is a reference to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs study that estimated up to 22 veterans committed suicide each day.

Cass’ story is directed by Tim O’Donnell, who shot footage this past May of Cass’ latest major run, on behalf of wounded Marine Sgt. Eddie Ryan.

Cass, 33, lives in Connecticut now and works for the state. The ringing in his ears is a reminder of that day, June 17, 2005, when he was injured in Iraq. But not when he runs.

“Running is a step away from all that,” Cass said in a phone interview with The Herald-Sun.

“After I found my way, I wanted to share with other veterans that there’s another way, a better way,” Cass said. He’s excited to be part of the series.

“Every veteran has a story,” he said. “They’re not alone.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan