Walking for warriors

George Eshelman, a retired Army sergeant and president and founder of the Unified Warrior Foundation, made a stop for rest in Strasburg this week during his long hike along the Appalachian Trail. Nathan Budryk/Daily

STRASBURG — George Eshelman will be the first to tell you that he’s not interested in credit for his journey. The retired Army sergeant and president and founder of the Unified Warrior Foundation has hiked thousands of miles on the Appalachian Trail in his quest to stop veteran suicides and help those struggling warriors in any way he can.

The subject is a close one to Eshelman’s heart, as he lost a close friend to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and he himself nearly succumbed as well.

“I started my southbound hike September 7th for Shannon (friend who committed suicide). His family asked me to hike the trail and I’d set his name tape on top Mount Katahdin (northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail). September 10th, I was in the wilderness basically sitting behind a tree with a Glock 17 in my lap and I was going to take my own life.”

On his quest, Eshelman carries the name tapes (name tags affixed to military uniforms) of soldiers who have taken their own lives, so they are hiking with Eshelman in spirit.

“All the name tapes that I carry basically saved my life,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can’t dump all my problems on these guys and their families,’ so I went ahead and kept hiking and it just kind of started building … It was kind of growing – our message of trying to fix the problems instead of just treating them.”

Eshelman has molded his foundation to echo that message, believing that many foundations take a different approach because if the problem is fixed, those foundations will no longer be needed.

“There are a lot of foundations right now. They treat problems because that’s how they raise their money and stay in business” he said. “We’re ready to fix the problem as opposed to just continually treating it to raise money. So we figured a different structure of how foundations should operate.”

Eshelman said he his foundation believes in working together with other foundations to truly deliver the best results to the veterans who need them.

“It’s not something that can be changed with just one foundation raising hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “It has to be a coalition. We (veterans) call for support and we need it right then and there.”

He said that his foundation works differently than similar organizations that are less transparent about where funds go.

“When people donate to a foundation, they’re not coming away with anything but emotions of hoping that money goes where it’s supposed to,” Eshelman said. “The way foundations operate now, no one really knows where that money goes, so it’s a leap of faith when you donate. What we’re doing is once a month we put our books online so people can see where every penny goes.”

Another focus of the Unified Warrior Foundation is attempting to reintegrate members of the armed services who have returned home from service and may be struggling to return to civilian life. Eshelman said this is extremely common, as many veterans come home to a vastly different sense of purpose than was felt during their service.

“When you get out of the military, you don’t have that brotherhood, that security, that connection of having a mission … You don’t have your brothers and sisters to talk to or anything like that if you’re having a bad day. We want to change that.”

Eshelman’s journey finds him in the Shenandoah Valley for the time being. he will be hiking through several area towns to muster up support. He stayed at the Ramada Inn in Strasburg free of charge on Wednesday and Thursday, courtesy of owner Nilesh Patel. A list of the towns Eshelman will be visiting can be found on the Unified Warrior Foundation’s Facebook page and he encourages anyone who is interested to come walk with him.

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com