George Eshleman, a former Calhoun resident who is the director of the Unified Warrior Foundation, will begin the 2189-Miles for PTSD this Friday, by hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Eshleman served as a U.S. Army Ranger in the 3rd Ranger Battalion during Operation Desert Storm, serving from 1989 until 1993. He lived in Calhoun for 16 years after his service.
Eshleman began the organization when he was told his friend Shannon, who was a fellow soldier and hiking friend of Eshleman’s, committed suicide in April of 2015 due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“He had no signs he suffered from PTSD,” Eshleman said of his friend.
Shannon had planned to hike the Appalachian Trail to raise awareness for PTSD, which many soldiers suffer from, but refuse to seek help for, because of the social stigma. His goal was to finish in the quickest time, which would be a test of his mental and physical toughness.
Upon his death, Eshleman was asked if he would complete this challenge his friend set out to do. Eshleman set out on the hike from Katahdin Mountain in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. The attempt ended in a torn ligament in Eshleman’s knee.
The Unified Warrior Foundation, a non-profit, is an all-volunteer organization. The foundation is committed to bringing veterans together for the purpose of mitigating the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and 100 percent of proceeds go to the foundation. It also serves to get the attention of state representatives to do more for the men and women who “asked for nothing but gave everything.”
The organization aims to get veterans participating in activities such as river rafting, hiking, trout fishing, skydiving and other activities to bring veterans back together to build that family feeling of support they received when they served in the military.
“After injuring my knee on the first attempt at the 2189-Miles for PTSD, back in September, I am setting out for the winter thru-hike to Mt. Katahdin from Springer Mountain in Georgia this Friday,” said Eshleman. “A winter thru-hike is much different than any other time, not only because of the freezing temperatures, but because of the slower pace and heavier pack needed to carry winter gear.”
Despite the weather and tough terrain, Eshleman plans to complete the hike by spring. “My goal is to reach Mt. Katahdin by May 30, when the mountain reopens,” said Eshleman. “I want to be the first to the summit in 2016 or in the first group. I want all of the 216 names of veterans I will be carrying with me to be the first to summit in 2016. This really is about our fellow veterans and their families. I am just the person hiking for them. I expect to be on the trail for 136 days. That will require averaging 16.06 miles per day. I hike 22 to 30 miles a day, depending on terrain, in summer, but the winter will reduce my per day miles. I am confident I can achieve that average.”
Eshleman says that his greatest preparations have been the actual planning. “Planning, planning, and more planning,” said Eshleman. “’What if’ is a phrase I use constantly and I prepare for those ‘what ifs’. People have died on the trail in winter because of hypothermia, and injuries in winter are more dire because of the time it takes to reach the hiker is more of a concern when it is 15 degrees or -20 degrees. Other than planning, hiking and staying focused on who this hike is for, I am just anxious to start. It is beautiful scenery and with my brothers and sisters hiking in spirit with me, I believe I can’t ask for anything more pleasant and enjoyable.”
Eshleman wants fellow veterans to know this hike is to let them know they have support after their military service. “Most importantly, we want our fellow veterans to know they have their brothers and sisters to rely on if needed,” said Eshleman. “We want to introduce our foundation to communities and veterans across the country and partner with smaller foundations who may not have the funds to do everything they wish. One example is the Homes for Hero’s Foundation. They assist veterans with utility bills, rent, mortgage and things like that. These are foundations we have vetted and verified; they are good stewards with the donations they receive. We help them raise money so they can do more, and in return, they help that veteran we just took on a hike to heal his or her PTSD. One foundation can only do so much when they stay within their area of operation, but networking and paying it forward is a structure that works.”
The hike will also serve as a way to educate people on PTSD. “We also want to educate people on what PTSD is and isn’t,” said Eshleman. “There are many reasons for traumatic stress in someone’s life, but each person’s experience is different. One important fact to remember with a veteran is they are proud and strong. They don’t always ask for help and that is a course for disaster as 22 veterans a day commit suicide.”
“When I am hiking, I will be asking all my brothers and sisters, please call a friend, the suicide helpline on our Facebook page or myself, my number’s on the website. I don’t want one veteran to take their life while I am hiking. With our social media, radio and print exposure, we hope it will let veterans know they have us watching their Six.”
“We also have a funding Goal of $72,000 over the 136 days while on the trail. These funds will allow us to facilitate 16 section hikes with eight soldiers per hike. Hiking and the outdoors have been proven to give comfort and lower anxiety while building that trust veterans hold close. Funds also support programs with partner foundations homes for Hero’s Foundation. Our donations come from all over the country by Americans showing their support.”
Also this week, Eshleman has completed a photo shoot for the next Phoenix Patriot magazine. “The University of Phoenix has decided they would like to feature Unified Warrior Foundation and what we do,” said Eshleman. “This magazine is distributed to alumni and current students at the University of Phoenix, Arizona. Their military division has helped more than 40,000 veterans over 15 years get a degree and place them in jobs. That is not only saying you will, but that’s proving you will.”
Eshleman would like to thank his major supporters for getting the opportunity to begin the 2189-Miles for PTSD. “I want to acknowledge Blue Sky Outfitters in Rome and Cartersville. They have been instrumental in supporting our foundation. This company really cares about the veterans. They will be our exclusive supplier for our hiking and camping outings and deserve recognition.”
Anyone wanting to support Unified Warrior Foundation can by visiting www.unifiedwarrior.org and clicking the donate button. On Facebook, they can send a private message if they would like to volunteer with future events.