'The Keeper': Why an Army Vet Hiked the Appalachian Trail with 363 Name Tapes

Angus Benfield stars as Army veteran George Eshleman as he hikes the Appalachian Trail with the name tapes of 363 veterans who died by suicide. Eshleman intended to take his own life on that trek. (Lama Entertainment)

Long-distance hikers have a few things in common with people serving in the military. Not only do they carry heavy packs for miles on end, but people who were once strangers tend to form close bonds on the trails. They even give each other new designations while out in the wilderness, called a "trail name," similar in many ways to a military call sign. You can't choose your own trail name, and you have to accept it for what it is.

In the upcoming movie "The Keeper," Angus Benfield ("The Post") plays George Eshleman, an Army veteran who hikes the entire Appalachian Trail for the first time to raise awareness about veteran suicide. Along the way, he runs into a group of other vets hiking the trail. When they find out he's carrying the name tapes of 363 fellow veterans who took their own lives, his trail name becomes "The Keeper," and they help him fight his own depression and finish the path before them.

The full Appalachian Trail runs from Maine to Georgia, more than 2,100 miles, so it's no small undertaking to hike the entire distance. The journey, for even experienced hikers, can take from 5-7 months. "The Keeper" is based on the true story of the real Eshleman, a combat veteran who faced his own struggle with PTSD and depression. When he lost a close friend to suicide, he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail.

But Eshleman also never intended to return home.

A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, Eshleman left the Army and settled in Georgia in 1993. When he started his epic trek along the trail, he met a lot of other hikers, military and civilian alike, who embraced him into their culture, a kind of "Hiker Universe." The name tapes he carried became the key to saving his life.

"I collected name tapes from friends and their friends to hike the Appalachian Trail, but the underlying mission was to take my life on the trail," Eshleman told northwest Georgia's Calhoun Times. "I found myself with a Glock 17 pressed against my chest. The name tapes popped into my head ... so did the people that I'd met along the trail before I got to that tree, and I realized that I wasn't alone."

Army veteran George Eshleman carried all 363 name tapes on his pack while hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Lama Entertainment)

The decision to stay alive didn't happen overnight. In "The Keeper," Eshleman battles his depression and fully intends to stick to his plan. With support from his fellow hikers, he finds a new mission. He will finish hiking the trail and reach out to other veterans fighting the same battle to tell them they are not alone.

"You're never alone," Eshleman said in a statement. "The name tapes: my brothers and sisters and their families were now more important to me than I could ever imagine. Sadly, they were not able to overcome what they helped me to defeat. They were not just memories or traveling companions; they were now a sort of security blanket that would be with me till Georgia and many places beyond. I still have these name tapes close to me to this day. They didn't fail me that day, and I won't fail them in this continuing journey to tell people: 'You're never alone.'"

George Eshleman hiking with 363 name tapes and serving in Desert Storm. (Courtesy of George Eshleman)

"The Keeper" was produced by a slew of veterans. With Benfield, the film was co-directed by Marine Corps veteran Kendall Bryant Jr.; U.S. Navy veteran Todd Tavolazzi wrote the film from Eshleman's retelling.

"As we filmed, we met many people along the trail who were veterans, who had tears in their eyes as they shared with us personal stories of the pain they themselves have gone through," Benfield said in a statement. "This story made them want to share their stories, and it was why we were there on the Appalachian Trail, and why we are here ... to tell George's story, and the story of the 363, and the story of the 22 [veterans who die by suicide] every day, and the story of the countless number connected in some way to all those who have lost their lives and those who are losing the battle of a war that never seems to end."

"The Keeper" will be in theaters on Memorial Day, May 27, 2024.

If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.

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