Veterans hope to help comrades find peace outdoors

Published 8:55 am Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Elizabethton Navy veteran Shane Robinson and others across the country have joined forces to create the Unified Warrior Foundation, a veterans assistance group that will serve veterans by facilitating free outdoors activities and reconnecting veterans that served together.
Through the efforts of the foundation’s Executive Director George Eshleman, Robinson and others, it is now a registered non-profit with a board of directors and an active presence in seven states.
“What we want to do is bring soldiers back together with their brothers-in-arms,” said Eshleman. “We’ve defended each other in combat and loved each other like family. There’s no reason we can’t be helping each other outside of combat. We want to bring soldiers out in the field here, where they can hike with us at no cost to them.”
Robinson met Eshleman, an Army veteran, on Facebook and later learned they were stationed in the same area from 1989-1995 but never knew each other. They met in person last weekend at the foundation’s first event, the Kennesaw 22-mile section hike in Georgia.
Robinson and Eshleman said they, and other veterans like them, have found hiking and being in the woods to be therapeutic. For this reason, they are locally and nationally promoting the foundation’s cause.
“Our goal is to get soldiers out in the woods, together with other soldiers that have the same issues they have, and just get out and away for a little while,” said Robinson.
Not only will the foundation help veterans to be active and to find solace in the wilderness, it will rekindle relationships between people that have not seen each other in years, or maybe connect people who have never met but share a common experience.
He said that many veterans return home and have no one with whom they can connect or relate their experiences. Just knowing other veterans is not always enough, said Robinson.
“We want to make it possible for vets to connect with others that were actually there with them — that saw the same things,” he said.
For example, this weekend, at the Kennesaw 22, two veterans that served together met and found out they have lived two towns apart for more than 17 years.
To organize this effort, the foundation directors plan to establish a database in which veterans can reunite with fellow servicemen.
Some of their long-term goals include establishing offices in each state that provide assistance with completing Department of Veterans Affairs applications for services to reduce wait time and to keep vets from getting discouraged and giving up on getting help.
They plan to help homeless veterans find rental assistance and to network with therapists that can facilitate short wait times.
By networking on a number of levels, the directors believe they can help veterans establish relationships, develop hobbies, get medical assistance and significantly reduce the suffering and deaths related to post-service injuries, both physical and mental.
The plan for outdoors activities is to create a reward system, in which hiking a certain distance would win a veteran a free rafting, rappelling or fishing trip, for example. Activities involve hiking trips for day, section and through hikes.
Robinson said that with chapters in various states, they hope that they will be able to use their network to help veterans see the country.
Thus far, the foundation has a presence in Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Ohio, Missouri, South Carolina and Iowa, with numerous veterans interested in beginning chapters in Texas, Florida, Illinois, Washington, California, Maine, Utah, Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
Eshleman, Robinson and three other executive officers represent Tennessee, Georgia and Ohio.
Locally, a number of businesses have made donations to the foundation including Mullins Chrysler Jeep and Dodge, Merle Norman, Ritchie’s Furniture and Appliance, Alexander Insurance, Covered Bridge Cafe, Artisan’s Village and others.
Corporate sponsors include New Balance and Osprey.
The idea for the foundation came to Eshleman after his friend committed suicide before an attempted through hike of the Appalachian Trail. His goal was to raise awareness about the affect of post-traumatic stress disorder on veterans. Eshleman has set out to complete that goal and much more.
According to the Suicide Data Report conducted by Veterans Affairs in 2012, based on information from 21 states, an estimated 22 veterans committed suicide daily in 2010, consistent with the average of 20 per day between 1990 and 2014.
Eshleman attempted a through hike earlier this year, but tore a ligament less than a week into the hike and had to return home.
The hike is rescheduled for March 2016, and he hopes to get a number of other vets hiking with him from all branches of the military.
Families have submitted the names of their veterans that have committed suicide to the foundation to be carried with other veterans on hikes, and the number totals over 200. Robinson carries 66 names with him already.
“Separating from service is tough on families because there is insufficient training for return to life,” said Robinson. “Our ultimate goal is to bring their physical and mental health to a state where they can function daily.”
Calculating the number of veterans suffering from PTSD is difficult because an estimated 50 percent do not seek treatment.
According to a study by Congressional Research Service, between 1990 and 2014 in Tennessee, 4,200 veterans committed suicide, an average of 300 per year. The number of those suffering from PTSD increases with age, as more and more veterans report symptoms.
PTSD does not simply fade away for those suffering, or for their loved ones, which is why Robinson and Eshleman believe it is so important to show veterans a way to relax and find peace, by hiking.
“This trek is not for notoriety, but for every soldier who dreams of leaving the battlefield and having an outlet for help,” said Eshleman. “My goal is to create section hikes of this historic trail and invite soldiers to undertake the hike at no cost to them.”
To learn more or to make a donation, visit or check out their Facebook page Unified Warrior Foundation.

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