Balls in the Air

Page 4 of 9

"My mother disappeared from my life, pretty much forever," he says. "She didn't even visit me at the hospital after I got hurt in Vietnam. I never have understood why."

Born into a Catholic family, Romley regularly had attended church as a youth and served as an altar boy for a time. But he says he'd lost interest by the end of high school.

As a teen, Romley was a lean, good-looking kid with an eye for the young ladies, and a love of gymnastics and boxing. But he had little, if any, inclination toward the books. Partying whenever and wherever was more like it.

By then, he'd moved over to his grandparents' home on Third Street just south of McDowell Road, then to an aunt's house after his grandmother died.

Romley had little direction after he graduated from now-defunct West High School in 1967. He went to work for a construction firm. "I did grunt work, making the 'mud,'" he recalls.

Romley says he and best friend David Schaffer played hard and wondered what to do with their lives.

Romley enrolled at Phoenix College but dropped out before his first semester ended. In the spring of 1968, he and Schaffer joined the Marines together.

"I was working, but barely making it, and I was screwing up right and left," Romley says. "I said, 'Shit, go into the service, get some time under your belt.' I didn't really think about Vietnam. I wanted to get out of my rut."

That June, Romley married his high school sweetheart, Patti, shortly before getting shipped to Vietnam with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division.

Then, eight months into an often fierce tour of duty, his life nearly ended in the jungle south of Danang.

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.

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin