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The Keeper

The Keeper
From the PorchBy Amber Nagle
The Keeper
From the PorchBy Amber Nagle

They call him “The Keeper.” Well, that’s what they called him a few years ago when he hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia — all the while carrying 363 uniform name tapes of deceased U.S. military veterans who had died from suicide.

“I did it to raise awareness of the problem,” George Eshleman told me last week. “Veterans are 57% more likely to take their own lives than people who haven’t served. Over 6,000 veterans committed suicide in 2020.”

Thousands of people followed Eshleman’s progress on social media and left encouraging comments under each status post. When he met other hikers on the trail, they’d inevitably ask him about the name tapes, and he would launch into his explanation that he was carrying the names for the family members, and for the veterans themselves.

But Eshleman had another reason for embarking on the long foot journey — a secret reason. “I had lost a very good friend to suicide, and it put me in a dark place. I found myself on the path to the same outcome,” he says. “I had decided to take my own life on the trail and end things. I had kind, caring people in my life, but I can’t explain it. I just felt so alone.”

A few days into his hike, he sat beneath a tree, pressed a Glock 17 against his chest and wept.

“It was that moment that I realized I wasn’t alone, and that I had to complete my mission. I had to get those name tapes to Georgia for all of the people those strips represented. And so I put the gun away and stood up. I got back on the trail.”

There was also the realization that every individual who commits suicide ends up affecting someone else — family members, friends, coworkers, random people. Eshleman didn’t want to hurt his loved ones, and he also didn’t want some “poor hiker to find a dead body with his chest blown out.” He turned his thoughts to living and to joining the fight to help veterans find greater connection and mental health through research and services.

He finished his hike in five months, meeting dozens of folks along the way and sharing his mission and explaining the high likelihood that veterans who return home from combat often live with PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“I’m tired of talking about it,” Eshleman told me. “We’ve got to find ways to help all these men and women. Awareness is great, but it’s past time for action.”

When Eshleman returned home to Georgia, he wrote a story about his journey and titled it “The Keeper.” A friend took his story and reformatted it into a screenplay. An independent filmmaker started making it into a film last year.

“I don’t want to just make films for the sake of it, or do things for vanity purposes,” director Angus Benfield said, referring to Eshleman’s story. “I want to do a film that I believe goes beyond the four walls of the theater — something that will affect people in their everyday life.”

Eshleman has attended some of the filming sessions. He says that they expect to wrap up filming this autumn and start editing. “The Keeper” will be out in theaters in 2024. A portion of the movie’s proceeds will be donated to Disabled Veterans of America and other veteran suicide aid and prevention groups.

Eshleman, who lives in Northwest Georgia, told me that like other combat veterans, he has to fight harder some days than others just to get through a simple day.

“I have good days, and I have bad days,” he said. “I now understand that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you see someone around you is struggling and in a dark place, let them know you are there, and let them know you care. It can make all the difference.”

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