The two things Colt Romberger and his father had most in common, the ones that made them best friends as well as father and son, were a deep affection for horses and an equally deep pride in having served their country in times of war.
So when Cliff Romberger, a Vietnam War veteran and onetime wrangler of horses on Hollywood film sets, died in 2015 of a brain disease doctors attributed to his exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, his son knew there was but one way to honor him: He would saddle up his horse and ride it from the Pacific Ocean to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
On Monday the compact, muscular 32-year-old Iraq war veteran will begin that journey through big-city streets, across desert sand and over mountain ranges and prairies, aboard a handsome gray-and-black 4-year-old quarter horse named Gus.
Along the way he hopes to accomplish several things: raise money for veterans causes through a nonprofit foundation he's established, tell the public about the devastating, deadly effect the use of Agent Orange is having on thousands of aging bodies of Vietnam veterans and, with stops at town halls across the country, let those veterans know they have not been forgotten.
"I've spoken to so many Vietnam vets, and they've emailed me. Sometimes it breaks my heart hearing their stories," he says in a voice momentarily choked with emotion.
There was the guy in Norfolk, Virginia, who heard of the ride and sent him $200. When Romberger called to thank him he learned the man was dying of a form of leukemia he believed had been caused by Agent Orange but that had not yet been classified as such because there hadn't been enough cases for the Department of Veterans Affairs to study. He was hoping the government could make that connection in time to add his wife to his survivor's benefits.
"And then he passed away, and he never got the approval," Romberger says quietly as he sits on the patio of a friend's ranch in a semi-rural section of the picturesque suburb of Santa Clarita, 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of Los Angeles. Gus is in a pen nearby, playfully grabbing at a large log he's turned into a toy. They've just finished a lengthy endurance ride through surrounding canyons.
Colt Romberger has been preparing for this ride for nearly two years, and like all good cowboys, the reserve Pasadena police officer, Air Force reserve intelligence analyst and part-time actor will bring along a sidekick. It's his late father's best friend.
"He said, 'Kenny, I'm going to do this. You want to go?' I said, 'You bet,' so I told his mom I'll make sure he's taken care of, and so here we are," said Kenny Reichel, who is putting his business restoring antique cars on hold for the six months the ride is expected to take.
Reichel will drive a truck carrying supplies and pulling a horse trailer while scouting for places man and horse might bed down for the night.