Marine on a mission: Double-amputee handcycling across U.S. visits So. Utah

CEDAR CITY – Two Marines who were injured in the line of duty stopped in Cedar City Tuesday as part of their cross-country trek to help raise money for the Semper Fi Fund and awareness about the programs that help military and civilian families. Their hopes are, they said, to pay it forward.

Double amputee and retired Marine veteran Toran Gaal is hand cycling his way across the nation to raise money and awareness, Crystal Inn, Cedar City, Utah, June 9, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Double amputee and retired Marine veteran Toran Gaal is handcycling his way across the nation to raise money and awareness, Crystal Inn, Cedar City, Utah, June 9, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

Toran Gaal, 28, from California, is a double above-the-knee amputee riding his handcycle an estimated 3,800 miles across the country with the support of his friend Brian Riley, 29, who drives a van behind him to ensure his safety.

The devoted veterans began their journey June 1 in San Diego, California. The plan, they said, is to travel all the way to Arlington, Virginia, by way of Boston, Massachusetts, in only 65 days.

As of Tuesday, the pair had stopped in eight cities in California, Arizona and Southern Utah, including Kanab and Cedar City, with Panguitch on their itinerary for Wednesday.

The exhausted men said they had no idea what time they left Kanab Tuesday morning, because they had three different clocks with three different times on them. Traveling mostly in early morning hours, Riley said, their day typically begins between 2 and 3 a.m. to beat the heat and traffic.

Double amputee and  Marine veteran Toran Gaal and his road partner, who is also a retired Marine veteran and amputee, Brian Riley, meet with Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson, Crystal Inn, Cedar City, Utah, June 9, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Double amputee and Marine veteran Toran Gaal and his road partner, who is also a retired Marine veteran and amputee, Brian Riley, meet with Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson, Crystal Inn, Cedar City, Utah, June 9, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

Sitting on the couch in the lobby of the Cedar City Crystal Inn, which donated their night’s stay, the men said they were ready for sleep but had to wait on the mayor.

When Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson arrived, she brought a book about Utah as a gift to the Marines so they would always remember Utah’s beautiful landscape.

The Semper Fi Fund that Gaal is fundraising for helped support his family’s needs while he was injured and going through treatments. They provided plane tickets, gas vouchers, hotel accommodations, food and anything else his parents needed to be at his side through his two-month coma and endless surgeries, treatments and therapies, he said.

“Once they were able to start communicating with me and I learned how to talk again and use the phone, then the whole tide shifted and they started dealing with me more,” he said. “They still help my family, but they deal with me on a more personal basis.

“I think it makes focusing on recovery a lot easier,” he added.

The handcycle Gaal is using to cruise cross-country was bought by the Semper Fi Fund, he said, as was the certification for his service dog. One of the best parts, he said, is that his caseworker will be with him for the rest of his life, helping to meet his needs.

Double amputee and retired Marine veteran Toran Gaal is hand cycling his way across the nation to raise money and awareness, Crystal Inn, Cedar City, Utah, June 9, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Double amputee and retired Marine veteran Toran Gaal is handcycling his way across the nation to raise money and awareness, Crystal Inn, Cedar City, Utah, June 9, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

Gaal has seen a lot in his lifetime. Born in Calcutta, India, adopted by a single mother in the United States and then raised by his adoptive grandparents, the basketball star on his way to glory made a sudden change in trajectory in 2006 and joined the Marines.

Before retiring in 2014, Gaal served in the presidential detail and three deployments – one in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.

The decorated veteran also achieved a bachelor’s degree in business management from Georgetown while serving the president.

Gaal was awarded a multitude of military honors, including the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, with V for Valor for his heroic efforts above all expectations, and the Purple Heart for his injuries in the line of duty.

When Gaal was an infantry squad leader in Sangin, Afghanistan, he came in contact with an improvised explosive device on June 26, 2011. He lost both legs above the knee, a hip and part of his pelvis. He also suffered from severe brain damage to his frontal lobe.

Gaal had to learn to do everything over again, his wife, Lisa Graves-Gaal, said. When she first learned of him, she said, recalling the time before they were married, she was doing research for a book she was writing.

Double amputee and retired Marine veteran Toran Gaal before injuries, Afghanistan, 2011 | Photo courtesy of Lisa Graves-Gaal, St. George News
Double amputee and Marine veteran Toran Gaal before injuries, Afghanistan, 2011 | Photo courtesy of Lisa Graves-Gaal, St. George News

He didn’t always have the best disposition, but as time went on and they grew closer, she said, she saw more and more of the man everyone said they knew before the injuries. It was true love from that moment forward, Graves-Gaal said, and the two got married.

There would be no way this wild venture would have happened if it wasn’t for his wife, Gaal said. She has been the steam in the engine that got the train moving.

Once she realized her husband was serious about wanting to give back in this way, Graves-Gaal said, she got to work right away organizing the journey.

“I think we were having dinner one night, and I just pulled my calculator out and said, ‘Let’s look at some numbers on paper,’” Graves-Gaal said. “He was so adamant about not letting anyone help him do this – he said he didn’t want handouts.”

Eventually, Graves-Gaal convinced her husband to let her help him by getting some hotel rooms comped along the way and maybe some food, as well. So far, he has had to pay for most of the rooms they have stayed in, and Toran Gaal said he is OK with that.

In addition to raising funds for the Semper Fi Fund, Toran Gaal said, he wants to raise awareness about the other amazing programs that are out there to help veterans injured in the line of duty and civilian families, as well. Organizations like Achilles International and I Am Adaptive, he said, have made a big difference in the lives of many.

Double amputee and retired Marine veteran Toran Gaal, Freedom Station, San Diego, California, August, 2014 | Photo courtesy of Lisa Graves-Gaal, St. George News
Double amputee and Marine veteran Toran Gaal, Freedom Station, San Diego, California, August, 2014 | Photo courtesy of Lisa Graves-Gaal, St. George News

“Just yesterday in Kanab, Utah, I had an individual ask me, ‘How do I get a hold of these people?’” he said. “If he gets a bike or whatever he does, even if that was the only person to come up to me and ask something, then this mission – it’s a success.

“The money we raise is great, too, but anytime I can continue to serve my country is a good point for me.”

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1 Comment

  • Mean Momma June 13, 2015 at 9:33 am

    He’ll be lucky to cycle out of here alive with the way people drive around here! Please be careful and watch for people on bicycles and hand cycling. Don’t kill this veteran.

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