OAKHURST – UPDATE Monday, Aug. 3, 2015: After 63 days hand-cycling across the United States, former Marine and YHS grad Toran “Chance” Gaal has made it to Arlington. That was his goal.
For a complete update on Toran’s journey, check out USA Today.
And now, here’s the story we told a month ago:
A Yosemite High School graduate and former Marine is working his way across the United States on a hand-cycle specially adapted for the double-amputee. Right now, Toran “Chance” Gaal is raising money for the Semper Fi Fund, dedicated to helping all post-9/11 wounded warriors. And apparently, he’s loving it.
In 2005, Toran “Chance” Gaal graduated from Yosemite High School, and not long after, he joined the Marines. “It just happened,” says Gaal. “I surprised everybody, and walked away from everything, and joined the Marine Corps in 2006.” Bright, hard-working and personable, he moved fairly quickly up the ranks from Infantry to Team Leader. First, he was on deployment in Iraq, and by 2008 he was a Squad Leader deployed to Afghanistan.
After five years of military service, at the age of 24, Gaal encountered a 12 lb. pressure plate improvised explosive device in the city of Sangin. Gaal was nearly killed in the 2011 blast. His frontal lobe was crushed, he lost both legs, and he survived. That was four years ago in June. What happened afterwards was no surprise to those who knew him well.
Now, Gaal is in the midst of a daunting and fascinating journey, carrying a vital message of hope and awareness as he solo hand-cycles his way across the USA.
He’s expecting to reach Arlington, Virginia around August 2 if all goes as planned. He started out in San Diego, California on June 1, and when we talked to him, Gaal was getting his bike looked at for routine maintenance in Hutchison, Kansas.
“It’s been a long recovery,” says Gaal, now 28, who was in rehabilitation for traumatic brain injury and had to learn how to speak again. He moved from the VA Hospital in Palo Alto to the San Diego Naval Medical Center, and by the end of 2012 he was up and walking around on new prosthetic legs.
“Progressively I got better, lost weight I had gained in recovery, got more mobile, and started using my new legs full time.”
When we spoke with Toran recently he was physically exhausted, and undeterred, while switching over from day-riding to start cycling in the dark and early morning hours. This is in order to keep heat at bay and traffic levels at a minimum. From town to town, Gaal is getting recognition.
“The amount of support is at an awesome level and it’s fulfilling, as you come into cities. The people are engaged, and excited, and it wakes you up and you don’t feel as tired.”
Before The Ride, and before the Marines, Gaal was an Oak Creek Intermediate student in Oakhurst and ultimately, a Badger at YHS. He was raised in the area by his grandparents, James and Barbara Gaal. They’re a big part of the reason he’s out on the hand-cycle in support of the Semper Fi Fund today.
The Semper Fi Fund, and its program America’s Fund, provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to post 9/11 wounded, critically ill, and injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, and their families.
The organization exists to ensure that wounded veterans have the resources they need during their recovery and transition back to their communities.
Since establishing the Semper Fi Fund in 2004, the organization says it has issued more than 93,500 grants, totaling over $100 million in assistance to over 14,000 heroes and their families. The organization has an excellent rating with the group CharityWatch.
“I’m riding across American on the hand-cycle to raise awareness of the Semper Fi Fund, which was so helpful for my grandparents when I was recovering. They had everything they needed in order to be with me, and the organization was there to take that burden off of them. Then, when I was better, they gave me what I needed and figured out how they could help me.”
Toran says the flags that fly from his hand-cycle are meaningful: the flag stands for freedom and it’s what he fought for. He flies the Marine Corp flag as well, saying he will always be a Marine, and it flies in memory of and to honor the brothers he lost overseas.
He also rides and competes, he says, to inspire others with disabilities, and to show that an active life is possible, no matter what. His service to the country did not end when he retired from the Marine Corps. He continues to serve by mentoring, motivating, and inspiring others.
Preparing for the Ride Across America, Gaal has competed in eight marathons. The plan now is to travel a total of 3,800 miles, visit 52 cities, and arrive in Arlington after 65 to 68 days. That makes for some long rides, during which Gaal takes the time to improve himself in all ways, just as he did during military deployment.
“The ride time is almost like self soothing, like meditating, where I can think about ways to be a better human being, and more well rounded. It’s making me a better son, a better grandson, and a better person. This ride is teaching me how to engage with people outside of military.” Gaal credits his grandparents for raising him in a way that built his character.
Gaal is not entirely alone on his Ride Across America. Traveling along for support is fellow former Marine Sargent Brian Riley.
“Toran and I are coming from different directions to prove the same thing,” Riley says. “We want to show people that after traumatic events, whether a physical amputation or the psychological kind, you can still do great things with your life.”
Riley was also wounded in Sangin, when he took a round to the ankle and lost his leg below the knee. He and Gaal didn’t know each other back then; they met while in rehab, and in 2013 they started hanging out.
“I got involved because Toran and I started talking back and forth while getting our legs worked on. There’s down time, and only so much coffee you can drink. We had conversations about different fundraisers, we talked about driving a motorcycle, and the impact that one injured Marine helping another injured Marine could have.”
The two eventually decided on the most outrageous activity they could think of: hand-cycling across the country.
“Now,” says Riley, “I do what I can to make sure this ride goes as smoothly as possible for Toran. I keep the lights and radios working, try to get pictures and videos, and I’m driving behind Toran with my hazards on and a yellow safety light on top of the van.”
Riley notes that his essential life plan hasn’t been derailed by his injury. “I always want to make the world a better place and to help protect people in less fortunate nations. Now, I’m going to school for engineering and physics. Toran had a dream that he believed in and I wanted make sure that was possible.”
The reaction to Gaal’s Ride Across America has been overwhelmingly positive. They wake up at about one in the morning and hit the road, sometimes with a police escort. They arrive in a town and are usually greeted by an enthusiastic bunch of people, and some media requests. They’re fully in the rhythm of the ride now. The goal is not only to inspire, the team points out, but to help people realize they can develop the self discipline to achieve the goals and dreams they have, even after a traumatic injury.
“Surround yourself with good people,” Riley encourages. “Reach out to friends and family, and let them know if you’re struggling. There is no shame.”
So, what can people do to help with the effort to Ride Across America? Go to the website and make a donation so the men can reach their goal. The goal is simple: raise as much money as possible and turn it over to the Semper Fi Fund.
Coordinating the effort from afar is Gaal’s fiancé, Lisa. They met in 2014 and were engaged earlier this year.
“I have the best life I could ever have imagined,” says the outstanding cycler, “I can’t even quantify it. I’m grateful for my grandparents, fiancé, and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice above me who are now watching down on me. The only limits in life are the ones we set for ourselves.”