Balls in the Air

Steely County Attorney Rick Romley's going, but he's not gone. He'd like to take the governor's office from Janet Napolitano

Besides losing his legs, Romley's right arm was seriously injured, a knuckle was blown off and reattached, and he had suffered other injuries.

"I was exposed -- raw nerves and open wounds," he says. "I can't come close to explaining the pain."

Military policy was to fly the immediate family members of seemingly mortally wounded soldiers to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines for a final visit. Romley's young wife and his father made the sad trek with several families.

The Vietnam-era Rick Romley.
The Vietnam-era Rick Romley.
Romley congratulates his top aide, Paul Ahler, at a recent function.
Jackie Mercandetti
Romley congratulates his top aide, Paul Ahler, at a recent function.

Romley says all the other soldiers in his ward at the time died while he was there.

About four months after Romley was wounded, he learned that his best friend, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal David Thomas Schaffer, had died in combat.

Depression sometimes threatened to overwhelm him, but he just wouldn't let himself check out. He says it wasn't faith in God, though Romley says he's always believed in a higher power.

Romley underwent about 20 surgeries before doctors allowed him to return to the States. He spent months at military hospitals in California before getting discharged March 22, 1970.

"I overheard my sister say, when I was at Balboa Naval Hospital, that she figured I was going to end up on a street corner someplace," Romley says. "She wasn't trying to hurt my feelings. But she was right; I didn't have a clue what was going to happen to me."

He also recalls what a military psychiatrist told him during his exit interview:

"He said, 'Your disability is so bad and you're trying to walk like a normal person. You're not going to. You can't overdo anything. Don't try going up escalators. If you really want to be adjusted, you need to be taking your [prostheses] off and going out that way.'

"I was, 'Fuck him!' What an idiot! That's so against what I am. I told him I was proud of trying to be as normal as possible. He made it sound like I was weird. I didn't take it to heart at all. Actually, I walked out."

Patti Romley gave birth to the first of their two sons in November 1970. Doing the math, it seems that David Thomas Romley -- named after his father's fallen comrade -- was conceived in a hospital.

"At least some things were working," Rick Romley says, leaving it at that.

A second son, Aaron, was born in April 1972.

But Romley's marriage was failing.

"Patti married me when I was a strong, young Marine," he says. "You see me walking now, but then I was at the point where I wasn't thinking about much other than how I was going to get out of that chair I was stuck in. How do you restart your life when something like this happens?"

Patti at first had the young boys after the couple got divorced in 1974. But Romley eventually won custody of the children, and became a devoted single dad.

"To me, it was a godsend," Romley recalls. "Getting my kids made me realize, it's not just about Rick anymore. I had to pull myself together, because I had to take care of those kids. When you have a terrible tragedy that affects every part of your life, it's hard. But having other responsibilities, well, I just couldn't throw the kids away."

Physically, it was rigorous: "When you have no knees, you can't bend over like a real person. We became great buddies trying to figure it out. One day, I was carrying Aaron when he was still a baby, and I fell. Somehow, I twisted myself around and he landed on my chest instead of me on him. It hurt. But we laughed."

Romley continued to adjust. He opened a small clothing store in the mid-1970s with his sister Peggy, but he wanted to earn a college diploma.

He did so in 1974, earning a business management degree with honors from ASU.

Romley's uncle Elias was urging him to consider becoming a lawyer. Romley decided to go for it, and won his law degree from ASU in 1982.

Romley soon landed a job as a prosecutor for the City of Phoenix. "I just wanted to be a normal guy," he recalls, "making ends meet for my family."

Paul Ahler remembers befriending the man with the cane who showed up to work downtown.

"He came in determined, and I saw his work ethic from the start," says Ahler, who will be leaving his job as chief deputy when Romley's term ends December 31.

He says he didn't learn for more than a year why Romley walked with such difficulty.

"In those days, there were few accommodations for the handicapped, but Rick never asked for anything," Ahler says. "Finally, I asked him. He said he'd stepped on a land mine. Then he went on with his business."

Within a few years, Romley moved over to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. County Attorney Tom Collins soon moved the young prosecutor into a mid-management position as chief of the child-support-collection unit.

Romley's time in child support was controversial, as he tried to implement major changes in what had been an ineffectual unit. Some underlings swore by him. But others swore at him, dubbing him "Rommel," after the World War II German general.

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