2016-07-29 / Front Page

Long walk to raise awareness

Unified Warrior Foundation creator hikes for vets who have committed suicide
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

George Eshleman of Cartersville, Georgia, stops in Kennebunk’s Cannon Park on Wednesday, July 20, as part of his third walk between Maine and Georgia in support of the Unified Warriors Foundation, which he founded to help retiring veterans survive PTSD. (Duke Harrington photo) George Eshleman of Cartersville, Georgia, stops in Kennebunk’s Cannon Park on Wednesday, July 20, as part of his third walk between Maine and Georgia in support of the Unified Warriors Foundation, which he founded to help retiring veterans survive PTSD. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — Anyone who spotted a man hiking though downtown Kennebunk on Wednesday, July 20, might be forgiven for taking little note. After all, a person walking down Main Street with a pair of hiking canes, even when laden with a fully loaded rucksack, is not all that unusual.

Not in Maine.

But anyone who took a second look might have noticed a non-standard piece of equipment — hanging from the hiker’s side, a bundle of 218 name strips from military uniforms.

The hiker’s name is George Eshleman. He’s the founder of the Unified Warrior Foundation, and the name stripes represent soldiers who have committed suicide.

Eshleman’s long walk began in April 2015, when Shannon Wilson, a friend his since age 9, killed himself. Both entered the Army out of high school, Wilson staying in Delta Force until a few months before his death, Eshleman, now 47, exiting after nine years, eventually becoming an engineer and, among other things, patenting a grill shaped like a NASCAR body.

Although the two men lost touch to a certain degree over the years, Wilson’s family asked Eshlman if he’d honor a last request — to take their loved one’s name stripe out on the Appalachian Trail. He agreed.

“He [Wilson] never revealed to anyone he had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome),” Eshleman said on Wednesday, during a pause in his trek at Kennebunk’s

Cannon Park. “Most soldiers will not do that, one because they think it makes them look weak, and second because of the stigma PTSD has gotten over the years in the media.”

After posting on Facebook his plans to honor his friend, the families of other military men and women who had similarly ended their own lives began to send him additional name stripes. Before he knew it, Eshleman had the names of 218 fallen soldiers strapped to his belt.

Eshleman left his Georgia home at the far end of the Appalachian and began his trek in Maine on Sept. 7, 2015. But just three days later, he reached a spot where, overcome with despair at the loss of his friend, and the ghosts of the 217 other soldiers at his side, Eshleman sat down, put a pistol to his head, and prepared to join his former comrades in arms.

“This may be a morbid way of saying it, but it seemed like a beautiful place to die,” he recalled. “But then I realized I was about to dump all my problems on so many other people. I just couldn’t do it.”

Instead, after a long breath, he got up. He buried Wilson’s name along the trail, as promised, under a rock at a high peak, “where it’s part of the mountain now,” and continued the walk.

Once he got back to Georgia, Eshleman quit his job and lightened his load. “I sold almost everything I owned,” he said. And, with the proceeds, he founded the Unified Warrior Foundation.

By partnering with other military organizations, UWF strives to help the families of soldiers who have taken their own lives, but also to help heal and transition veterans as they work to reenter civilian life.

Too many of those former warriors come out of the services suffering from PTSD, Eshleman says, taking their lives at a current rate 28 to 32 per day, or more than one per hour, nationwide. But what most people don’t understand, he says, is that PTSD is not just the result of being under constant, heavy bombardment in a time of war. Simply serving creates its own kind of stress, which, because military life can be so rigid and structured, can actually, perhaps counter-intuitively, compound itself once those pressures are removed.

“When something was wrong for someone in the military, it got fixed rather quickly, because we need soldiers in the field who were mission ready. But when they get out, they don’t have that structure any more,” Eshleman said. “It’s really no different than if you were to take your own child and put them out of the house and never speak to them again — they’re lost, they don’t know where to go.”

Unfortunately, support systems like the V.F.W. and the American Legion fail to attract younger soldiers, Eshleman says. “For the younger generations, that’s viewed as an old man’s bar. There’s a generation gap. The younger soldiers need something that’s for them.”

The help UWF provides surviving family members of fallen soliders, and veterans in need of aid, comes in many forms, from medical, to mental, to menial labor. But the primary mission is to organize outdoor activities for retiring soldiers and their families — from fishing and rafting, to skydiving and sporting events — to help re-establish the bonds of brotherhood and a network of mutual support and camaraderie.

After getting UWF off the ground, Eshleman turned around and retraced his steps back to Maine, taking the trail he and Wilson had often talked of hiking as young men. Leaving Georgia in January, he arrived at Mt. Katahdin, last month, hoping to raise awareness for his foundation’s mission, as well as PTSD and the needs of soldiers of all stripes. But then, rather than fly back home, he elected to make a third walk, this time returning to Georgia via the open highway, rather than wooded trails.

“I thought, let people see me. Let them see these names I’m carrying. Let them see what 28 soldier suicides a day looks like,” he explained.

The UWF is run completely by volunteers with support from private companies and individuals. And that, Eshleman says, is how he intends for it to stay. The organization is purposely structured to focus all of its energies on the mission at hand.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “A lot of foundations, they’re a business. A lot of nonprofits, they’re about the people who run them making a good living. That’s not what this is about at all.”

And with that, Eshleman gathered up is things and hit Route 1, hoping to spread the word, one step at a time, the name stripes at his side swaying with each stride, in testament to the need.

“I believe these soldiers will get a change to live once more, and save those who have not yet taken their lives,” he said.

For more information about the Unified Warriors Foundation, visit its page on Facebook, or www.unifiedwarrior.org online.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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