Georgetown vet finding new way to raise awareness about homelessness

Georgetown vet finding new way to raise awareness about homelessness

GEORGETOWN — Just before the holidays, Layton Warstler lost a friend and fellow veteran to suicide.

His buddy, whom he met in the Army and served with in Iraq, had been homeless.

Warstler, 28, said losing his friend got him thinking about how he could raise awareness about veterans who are homeless and struggling with suicidal thoughts.

According a Veterans Affairs study released in August, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day in 2014, and six of those 20 were recent users of Veterans Affairs services.

To bring attention to the issues, Warstler said, he came up with the idea of sleeping in Georgetown's Patriot Park for more than 20 days, beginning on Jan. 1.

"I was going to voluntarily make myself homeless," said Warstler, a 2008 Georgetown-Ridge Farm High School graduate who was in the Army from 2008-2012, including a tour in Iraq from 2009 to 2010.

He said Patriot Park is a memorial for veterans in the middle of the town square, so his mission would be very visible to everyone.

"I felt like that was a great place to do it," said Warstler, who's a member of the American Legion post in Georgetown and pitched the idea to the members.

Stationed in Alaska for four years during his service, Warstler said he is accustomed to the cold and knew this was something he could do physically that would be big enough to raise awareness.

"I was super excited and super pumped up," he said.

Legion members decided Warstler should ask permission of the city, because it owns the park property.

After consulting with liability insurance representatives and the city attorney, Georgetown aldermen told Warstler last week that even if he signed a waiver of liability, the city could still be liable if Warstler was harmed during his quest, which he had moved back to Feb. 1 while waiting on permission.

"A huge disappointment," said Warstler, who planned to sleep in a tent each night with a small propane heater. "It was such a sincere cause for me that when I was told 'No,' there was a little bit of anger with that disappointment."

Georgetown Alderman Darren Alexander said the city council supports Warstler's "excellent cause" and they volunteered to help in any other way possible.

Alexander said if something bad happened, it would turn Warstler's great cause into an awful situation, and the city would be liable for giving permission. Alexander said suicide is an issue that he's experienced close to his family.

"It hits close to home with me. ... Unfortunately, I can't act that way being an alderman," he said referring to ignoring the liability to the entire city.

Ron Torbet, commander of the Legion in Georgetown, said its membership likes supporting their veterans when they have good ideas, and they were behind Warstler in this effort. But, Torbet said, the Legion membership realizes that aldermen felt they had to make this decision.

"And we are good with that," Torbet said, adding that the city does a lot to help the Legion, and the membership may consider another way to carry out Warstler's idea.

Warstler said he's still committed to doing something to raise awareness.

"It's not done, and it's not laid to rest yet. I'm going to definitely figure out something," Warstler said.

Warstler said there are veterans in Vermilion County who keep themselves isolated, who don't seek help at the VA or elsewhere.

"And that's what we're trying to eliminate," he said, explaining that their American Legion group is open to veterans who want to talk and they know where to point someone for help. "It's not necessarily forcing them to the VA to get help, but getting them to talk to us. And whatever comes out of that can only be positive."

Torbet said the post's service officer, Dave Hughes, knows how to help veterans get connected with whatever services they need.

"If someone calls us, we will help them however we can," Torbet said. "We don't turn anybody away."