Retired Army Sergeant George Eschelman had always loved hiking. He and his friend Shannon, with whom he had served in Kuwait, would hike and heal from their wounds of war. They had planned to hike the Appalachian trail together. But, in 2015 Shannon committed suicide.
Devastated by the loss, George decided to carry her name with him as he hiked the trail. When others heard of the trip, families sent him names of their loved ones. He began hiking the Appalachian Trail carrying hundreds of name tags of veterans who have committed suicide.
“I carry these everywhere I go, they’re kind of my security blanket now after they saved me on the Appalachian trail from taking my life,” he said.
From Maine to Georgia, travelling 25-30 miles a day, strapped with a pound of name tags, retired Sergeant George Eschelman hikes the trail. Alongside him, fellow veterans carry even more names of those who will hike the trail only in spirit. “We have over 1244 names… we have companies sponsoring 100 names at a time… that pays for the framing and mailing of these names back to the families.” George explains.
The organization Eschelman helped to form, the Unified Warrior Foundation accepts sponsorships from businesses to help fund the trip. All veterans are invited to join him on the trail and carry the names of fellow veterans who had taken their own lives. And families may private message on Facebook “Just send us the name you want taped up, and it will be carried by myself or another veteran on any outing we have,” he said.
The journey honors the spirit of fallen fellow veterans but the organization seeks to create solutions to assist veterans suffering from PTSD, depression or debilitating psychological stress. The foundation organizes fishing, boating and various activities for vets to get together and “rekindle military brotherhood and sisterhood bonds”.
George is hiking to also bring awareness to the fact that veterans are not receiving the assistance they need, thus the high rate of suicide among combat veterans.
"You've got to address the premise of the problem...no matter what a veteran takes his life for, they can always trace that back to PTSD, the separation from that family they had in service."
Upon completion of the trail. Eschelman will have the name tags each framed with the words, ‘Hiked the Appalachian Trail in Spirit’ and returned to their respective families.
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