A photo hangs on the wall that reminds Donald Zempter, 44, of Portsmouth, of the last Christmas he had in a home with a family. So many people walk around refusing help for issues they refuse to admit to having often because of a stigma that exists within society. Overcoming that stigma remains a process for Zempter, a disabled combat veteran, who says it was the compassion of others that helped him get to where he is today.
In high school, Zempter remembers being pretty reckless. It was 1990, the first year of the Gulf War, and Zempter was a high school junior with a juvenile record and some experience with drug use. The United States was talking about bring back the draft. Zempter and another friend, however, were eager to volunteer. As juniors, the signed up to join the military under the delayed entry program. After graduating from Minford High School in 1991, Zempter left for the Navy.
“I was already self-destructive,” Zempter stated.”Why not head to Kuwait City?”
The war was over when Zempter arrived, but the experience left a lasting impression.
“I went over and did my tour,” Zempter said. “It was a mess in Kuwait at the time. We were trying to help the regroup as a people. You see a lot of stuff, mass graves.”
It was enough to change a person. Zempter saw things he couldn’t forget. Then, in 1993, he was home but getting ready to do another tour. He was married to his high school sweetheart. Zempter says his wife left him for his best friend.
“This guy, he was my brother,” Zempter explained about the significance of the relationship.
This had really started to affect Zempter’s mental health. Then, his dad had a heart attack. Zempter was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1994. His dad died in 1998.
After the end of his military career, Zempter still tried to build a normal life. He remarried, had three children, got a good job, but still struggled. Zempter says he was having panic attacks and was prescribed antidepressants. Mental health affected his ability to hold jobs. He was self-medicating with alcohol. At the time, Zempter was working for the railroad, which had a zero tolerance policy against drugs and alcohol. Zempter went out golfing with friends one night and had too much to drink. The next morning he was called in to work and still had alcohol in his system.
After losing that job, Zempter went on to be a third generation union man as he joined the boiler makers. He was not home much, working 15-16 hour days. Meanwhile, he had mental health and substance abuse issues.
“I know that I couldn’t have been much to live with,” he said looking back.
In 2006, Zempter says he had a workers compensation related injury. He added that because it was going through workers compensation, it took nine months to get a needed knee surgery. It took three months to even see a surgeon. To take care of the pain, Zempter’s doctor was prescribing him 30 milligram Percocet. Nine months of that strong of an opiate quickly sent him on a downward path of hard addiction.
“In 25 years, I’ve done every drug known to man,” the veteran stated. “You name it, I’ve done it and to excess.”
Zempter and his wife separated in 2008 and later divorced in 2010. Then, in 2011, he was laid off from his job, just months after having his fourth child, daughter Gemma. Simply paying child support and bills became a struggle.
“It was hard to hold onto a house payment,” Zempter explained.
Addiction did not make that easier. Mental health issues did not help. Zempter did not want to admit to his mental health issues, saying there is a stigma that comes to mental health issues, such as addiction and disability. With his life spiraling out of control, Zempter clung to his house.
“I held onto that house for so long because it was the kids’ house, and I wanted to keep it for them,” he explained.
He struggled with guilt over his relationship with his children, mostly the oldest three. He felt like the bad dad people told him he was. It was something he carried with him, often in the words of those around him who helped remind him of his failures. Losing the house was not a failure he felt he could handle. It was, however, inevitable. The house was officially foreclosed upon in 2013, but Zempter remembers the notice hanging from the door nearly a year earlier.
After losing the house, he was homeless. At times, he would sleep in his car. Sometimes, he would return home.
“I would sneak over and stay in the house,” he stated. “I knew it was unlocked, and I could sleep there.”
While homeless, Zempter had two companions – two pitbulls.
“They were my family,” he commented.
Over the years, Zempter had developed trust issues, and the dogs were better friends to him. Also, because of his mental health issues and untreated addiction, he struggled to fit in with society. He had lost two families and many jobs.
“I understand why some of those people (homeless) don’t want to come back to society,” he stated.
Zempter was homeless for only four months. In this time, he lived in a Cadillac, ate dog food and drank river water. Some things he says he was still too proud to do. He would see people panhandle, but he could never bring himself to do it.
“They don’t like asking people for handouts. They don’t like what they’re doing,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it. I would strain river water through socks until it looked drinkable.”
He said he would also walk along the roads, looking for things people had thrown out. Zempter explained that people would throw out bottles of water that still had water in them.
“Anyone who is homeless knows you have to move around, so you don’t wear out your welcome,” he explained.
Zempter remembers putting 27 cents in his car that gets 10 miles to the gallon just so he could drive it a street over.
“I was in such a bad place that I was praying to die,” Zempter stated.
Then, Zempter was saved. His friend, John Michael Pace, found out about his living situation. Zempter says this man came and got him and let him live at his home rent free. Pace allowed Zempter’s children to visit, he fed them, he fed Zempter. More importantly, he never pointed out Zempter’s flaws or expected anything in return.
“This man was a great humanitarian,” he said reflecting. “In order for someone to progress as a human being it takes recognizing them as a human being as imperfect as you are.”
Zempter was able to grow and get better. He now gets therapy and proper medications through the veterans administration. He is legally disabled and gets disability benefits, though he says he misses working. Zempter has moved in with his mom, where he is able to work on his relationship with her and his children. Gemma has become a great point of positivity in his life. He also writes and plays music. He no longer self medicates with drugs, however. Zempter has been clean for more than four years.
Though he still struggles and strives to be better, Zempter has learned much from his journey. He says he has learned to give and to feel happy just because he gave without judging another person’s issues or conditions because he can understand those conditions and understands that even though people’s issues are different, having issues is part of being human and makes a person no less deserving of humility.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.