Combat's Painful Lessons

Wall memorial keynote speaker recalls his friends, his wounds

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As the chopper swooped in for a landing under fire, Pfc. Rick Romley braced himself to jump out that door, hit the disconcertingly green ground and run for cover. Just in front of him huddled another, equally green kid who had arrived along with Romley on a transport from another world two weeks earlier.

As the chopper neared the ground, the door gunners both opened up to lay down covering fire to secure the landing zone. Romley, a Phoenix boy who figured he'd escape family conflict by joining the Marines, gripped his M-16 -- destined now for terrible pain and great things.

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Rick Romley in Vietnam

The rotor thumped, bits of leaves and dirt rose from the ground, the heavy machine guns chattered and the kid in front of Romley went through the open doorway. Romley followed, a scared kid fated to become a double amputee, Maricopa County Attorney and Payson Tribute Wall Memorial keynote speaker on Saturday at Green Valley Park.

"Men got off to the right and left, to secure the LZ as you're coming in," Romley recalled in one of his rare public discussions of his service in Vietnam -- giving details of his life he rarely shares in preparation for his 9 a.m. speech on Saturday.

"I remember this young kid, running right beside me and he wasn't ducking down."

A couple of weeks earlier, the kid was just out of high school and not old enough to drink beer in his home town where the war was just something in the newspapers.

But now, he ran right in front of the door gunner. The heavy slug caught him in the neck, killing him almost instantly.

Romley stared at the kid, converted so inexplicably into one of the bodies that he'd already learned to look through and past.

"I was right behind him. You just see the ugliness of war so close up -- friendly fire, the fog of war. When you're brand new to combat, you just respond to commands -- you don't think a lot. You're just running in line. As you become more experienced, you begin to have a presence of mind to think about it. But the kid just ran. He didn't duck," recalls Romley, the image still fresh in his mind.

The death of that boy was just one of the vivid images that marked Romley's year of constant patrols through a booby-trapped landscape that the desert native recalls as lush and hauntingly beautiful. His combat tour would end with a split second mistake that cost him both of his legs and years of excruciating rehabilitation.

The once aimless kid who had risen to combat squad leader came through that crucible of pain and loss with unexpected strength. The reservoir of courage he discovered in combat and in that hospital, proved sufficient to carry him through a divorce, single parenthood, starting a business, getting through law school, a controversial stint as Maricopa County Attorney, and a private law practice.

His sons have also served in the Marines and one is now a major, having served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now Romley is an often-mentioned potential candidate for governor and the keynote speaker for a four-day visit of the Vietnam Tribute Memorial Wall to Payson.

"The wall is perhaps the greatest statement of what Vietnam was -- it epitomizes in many ways the troubled times -- the sacrifices that were given," said Romley, who recalls the mixed and often hostile reactions he got even when he later revealed to civilians how he lost his legs. "If there is one lesson we learned from Vietnam, it's to always honor those who give so much -- no matter how troubling the war may be seen politically. And I think the lesson has been learned to a great extent -- the soldiers coming home now are being honored, no matter what political side you're on."

He came to his great success and long public service along a narrow, overgrown path -- set thickly with mines and snares.

He left home at 18, partly to escape the family conflicts that had sundered his parents' marriage. "It was a difficult time. A tough childhood," he says, unwilling to go into that topic any deeper.

He enrolled in community college, but was struggling financially and unsure as to his direction.

"I was just kind of drifting." It was 1968, the year that assassins killed Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the start of the widespread anti-war protests that would ultimately convulse the country. But Romley figured the Marines would help him get his head straight.

So he enlisted and married his high school sweetheart on leave from boot camp. "They offered me officer candidate school, but I didn't want to stay in five years. So they made me a grunt."

After a couple of weeks at boot camp, he found himself on a transport plane bound for 'Nam. "When you're young, you think you're invincible, but this was just so uncertain. I couldn't judge it accurately. You think you're going to be strong and you think you're going to be OK -- but it's war -- you don't even know how you're going to act."

Almost as soon as he arrived in country, they shipped him to a forward operating base near Da Nang. And within days of arriving there, he found himself patrolling the jungle in the humid swelter with the First Battalion of the First Marine Division.

The death of the kid who ran in front of the machine gun was the start of his combat education. "You watch the movies, and the booby-trap is always attached to a string running across the trial. But (their enemies) were very good at what they did. So they wouldn't string the wire across the trail where you could see it, they'd put it between two trees to catch the antenna on the radioman's pack -- so we learned to bend the antenna down."

Another major operation also haunts him now. They were working to trap a North Vietnamese division near the Meade River, encircling it and then drawing the circle tighter as bombers pounded away. Eventually, the survivors began to surrender.

"They literally gave up, put their hands in the air. They had been napalmed. They were burned pretty bad. But they were able to walk at that point. I had seen a lot of bodies. But when you look at dead bodies, you look but you sometimes don't see. This was a little closer to home. These were living people standing there so badly burned with their hands up. It was just the whole calamity of war," he recalls now.

He was promoted to a squad leader, leading his men through fierce combat, losing some, saving some, always moving on.

Then one day in 1969, he was sent out with an augmented squad of about 20 that included a Vietnamese army unit to find sites from which the North Vietnamese were launching rockets into Da Nang.

"We had just hit a very bad area -- very heavily booby-trapped. Six of my men had just gotten wounded -- air evaced out. One of the wounded guys was the heavy machine gunner, so I picked up the machine gun."

It was hot, they were tired. They were in a gully, with sloping sides and several ways to scramble out. Carrying the heavy gun, he saw one incline that looked a little less difficult and headed for it.

"I looked back later and thought ‘why the hell did I go up there?' I should have known better. There were many ways I could have gone, but one way looked a little easier. But the easier areas are what they booby-trap."

The first he knew of the mine, he was in the air -- his legs already mangled. "I remember flying through the air. And the pain."

The medics rushed to him and stopped the bleeding from two major severed arteries. One leg was gone, the other terribly mangled.

"I remember being in the helicopter and I was ice cold and someone said, ‘I think he's going into shock.' I don't know what it was, but that woke me up. I said ‘God dammit, I'm not in shock, I'm in pain.' Then they all laughed."

He spent weeks in unremitting pain, hovering near death. He ultimately lost both legs above the knee, suffered other injuries, developed gangrene and nearly died repeatedly. They flew him to the Philippines and then Japan for medical treatment -- once diverting the plane to a closer hospital when he started to die again. In the Philippines, the doctors figured he wouldn't make it, so the Marines flew his family out to say goodbye.

Somehow, he pulled through.

But in an unremitting haze of pain confronting the reality of a lifetime without his legs, he nearly despaired.

"I was really getting down -- feeling sorry for myself. But they brought in another kid and he was pretty bad. He was just crying and kept saying he wanted to die and everything else and here I was feeling so sorry for myself. And the pain was horrible, but that kid got me all kind of twisted around. So I started talking to him, saying, ‘hey, it gets better,' even though it really hadn't for me. But he gave me some extra strength. I never did find out what happened to him."

Romley spent a year in the hospital, then more years learning how to walk on the legs left to him. Often at the end of the day, he would pour the blood out of the artificial leg, where the pads had once more opened up the scars on his stumps."

Curiously enough, he says that long agony benefited him. "As crazy as this is going to sound -- in a lot of ways my war injuries were good for me. I learned I had an inner strength that maybe I wouldn't have known about before."

More traumas lay ahead -- the divorce when his wife found she could not handle what had happened to him, the demands of raising two boys alone, starting a business, going to law school, becoming a prosecutor, launching a political career.

As Maricopa County Attorney, he gained fame and controversy for running a sting operation known as AZSCAM and later the prosecution of Catholic Diocese of Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien in connection with the pedophile priest scandals.

He has worked consistently for veteran organizations. In 2001, he received an award from the Disabled American Veterans as outstanding disabled veteran of the year. More recently he has served as an adviser to Secretary of Veteran's Affairs James Nicholson and handled contract cases for the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

But he has spoken only rarely about his experience in Vietnam, sharing that reluctance with many veterans who returned home to find themselves sometimes reviled in a nation bitterly divided about the war.

Romley said he didn't even talk much to his own sons, even after they both joined the Marines -- without any urging from him. But when he learned that David would be among the first US forces into Afghanistan, the two men had a long conversation about combat. Romley passed along tips, like protecting your hearing with the broken filter tips of cigarettes when working in caves or tunnels where the sound of a .45 in a closed space could damage the eardrums.

He said the conversation meant a lot to them both. "I opened myself up. But you know, he's come back from Afghanistan and Iraq and he doesn't talk to me much about it. Isn't that funny?"

He said he agreed to speak in hopes of honoring the friends whose names are on that wall and to deliver a message to both the veterans and to the rest of the community.

"Only the veterans can ever truly understand what it was like. But my message to them is that we are now the stewards of this nation and it's up to us to step up to the plate.

"To the non-veterans -- I'm not sure you can adequately ever express the gratitude that is so delayed in being given, but thank them and be honest -- say, we didn't thank you at that time and we were wrong, but I want to thank you today."

And beyond that, learn the hard lessons that will get you through.

Don't forget to duck.

Don't take the easy path.

And if you get knocked down, just get up. And up. And up. Until you can stand again, even if it's on your stumps.

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