Toran Gaal is tired, like you wouldn’t believe, but he’s also pumped. He’s got some “Ooh Rah!” for sure.
Having wheeled his way across the country in a handcycle, the double-amputee Marine veteran and former Oakhurst, Calif., resident is now in striking distance of his goal. Soon, he will roll into Arlington National Cemetery, the end of one remarkable journey and the start, he hopes, of another.
“The only limits in life,” Gaal said, “are the ones we set on ourselves.”
It’s a practiced line, in a way. The 28-year-old Gaal is preparing, once his ride is done, to launch himself as a full-time motivational speaker. But he’s earned every aphorism. The ride that started June 1 in downtown San Diego and that concludes Aug. 2 at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will have taken him some 3,800 miles and through an internal terrain few can fathom.
“Physically, I think I was prepared as much as I could be,” Gaal said, “but I definitely am at a fatigued point. . . . Every day is tough now.”
Gaal was sitting in a wheelchair last Friday and speaking in the lobby of The English Inn, a hotel near the University of Virginia campus. It’s a civilized, tea-serving place where parents stay and become all poignant and teary-eyed when dropping their children off for college or summer camp.
The day before, Gaal and his teammate, Brian Riley, had been 81 miles away, in Lexington, Va. There, Gaal had spoken to the earnest and innocent cadets of the Virginia Military Institute. A little after 1 a.m., his standard rousing time during much of the cross-country crucible, Gaal had hit the road.
Physically, I think I was prepared as much as I could be, but I definitely am at a fatigued point.
Riley, a fellow Marine veteran and single amputee, drove the gray support Town and Country vehicle festooned with signs. Of course, there was the Marine Corps’ globe and anchor. One sign advertised Gaal’s website and Twitter handle, #RideToranRide. Another sign called attention to Peter Harsch Prosthetics.
But while he cranked himself along on his 22-pound Top End handcycle, Gaal was mostly alone with his thoughts. No music distracted him.
“Just life,” Gaal said, when asked what he thought about while riding. “How can I grow? How can I use this experience to benefit?”
Perserverance, Gaal tells himself. Strength. Indomitable spirit.
Gaal and Riley made it to Charlottesville before sunup, enough time to rest and do some laundry before a television reporter showed up for the latest in the string of feature stories that have accompanied him along the way.
The Hutchinson News, in Kansas: “Veteran rides across U.S. through Hutch on hand-powered cycle.”
The Marshfield Mail, in Missouri: “Rain doesn’t stop Gaal’s ride across America.”
The Harrodsburg Herald, in Kentucky: “Toran Gaal stands tall.”
Born in an Indian orphanage, adopted by an American parent and in time raised by his adoptive grandparents, Gaal was six feet, three inches tall when he was a recruited basketball player coming out of Oakhurst’s Yosemite High School in 2005.
He attended the University of Dayton for two years, before leaving college to enlist in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Iraq as an infantryman, then to Afghanistan and then he returned to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.
Early on the morning of June 26, 2011, an improvised explosive device blew off Gaal’s left leg, shredded his right leg and crushed some of his brain. Parts of his hip and pelvis are gone; so are some of his memories. To date, he’s undergone 55 surgeries.
While horrific, Gaal’s injuries are not unique. Through September 2014, the Congressional Research Service counted 1,573 wounded veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan as having undergone a major limb amputation.
I’ve been on three different combat deployments. I lost a lot of friends. Their will is still with us, so that pushes me.
Gaal met Riley, who lost his left leg to machine gun fire in Afghanistan in 2011, while on the mend in San Diego. Together, they hatched the plan for a cross-country ride that would call attention to adaptive sports and raise money for the Semper Fi Fund, which assists family members of wounded Marines. The fund, for instance, bought Gaal his handcycle.
“I want to repay that,” Gaal said, and then he corrects himself. “I want to pay it forward.”
His wife, Lisa Graves-Gaal, said about $20,000 has been raised or committed so far. The goal is $40,000.
The day after Charlottesville, Gaal was in Richmond, and then it was on to Fredericksburg and points north, all the way to Boston before heading down to Annapolis and the final push into Arlington.
By this time, Gaal knows the drill.
“Just one crank of the handcycle at a time,” Gaal said. “Pick little milestones, a little point on the road. Make it to that one, and pick another one.”