ARLINGTON, Virginia — What started as a joke between Marines in a San Diego recovery room in the spring ended Sunday, more than 4,000 miles later in Virginia, as double amputee Toran Gaal hand-cranked his bike past the Marine Corps Memorial, through a row of American flags into the arms of his wife and children for the first time in two months.
Gaal, 28, had been on the road in his handcycle since June 1 with his buddy and fellow Marine amputee, Brian Riley, trailing in a support van, raising money for the Semper Fi Fund and trying inspire veterans struggling with physical and mental injuries.
“I want to show everybody what the human body is capable of,” he said. “I want to use (the ride) as a beacon of hope.”
The journey began in June 2011, in Sangin District, Afghanistan, one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of America’s war there. Gaal, then a 24-year-old corporal, stepped on a bomb and everything went dark for the next two months.
Even for this generation of veterans for whom surviving catastrophic injuries has become commonplace with improved body armor and vehicles, Gaal’s wounds are profound. He not only lost both legs, but had to have his right hip amputated as well, severely complicating his quest to walk with prosthetics. He also suffered a severe brain injury that left him in a coma for two months.
Surprising his doctors, though, Gaal learned to walk again after months of painful recovery and then he started peeling off the miles in a sit down bike with a handcrank in place of pedals: Gaal completed four handcycle marathons before embarking on his cross-country journey that would take him over dizzying mountain passes, across baking plains, and finally into the cloying humidity of a Southern summer.
“The toughest thing was getting over the Rocky Mountains,” he said. “It was really just kind of one crank at a time.”
Before envisioning his journey across America, Gaal met Riley --who served in a different unit but was also injured in Sangin District --in a San Diego recovery center. Riley not only recovered from his left leg being amputated after a gunshot wound, but he now teaches Crossfit. The two clicked by pushing each other and sometimes their doctors to defy their supposed limitations.
“The reason we became friends is both of us were always striving for self-improvement,” Riley said.
The idea for the cross-country trip began with Gaal and Riley lamenting what they saw as shortcomings with many veterans' charities, joking that they would start charities for each other. But when Gaal’s wife, Lisa Graves-Gaal got involved, things got serious as she lined up sponsors and hotel rooms, and Gaal, an avid cyclist, did, too. On June 1, they took off from San Diego.
Along the way, Gaal and Riley raised nearly $50,000 for the Semper Fi Fund, a charity that offers assistance to wounded servicemembers and their families, and were welcomed by big cities and tiny towns across the country. More important than the money, though, was giving hope to other wounded veterans.
“Part of the process for him was not just to ride his bike but to raise awareness that life after is possible,” Gaal’s wife, Lisa Graves-Gaal said. “He is the perfect person to spread that message.”
Many wounded veterans, especially those dealing with psychological ills, need to hear from someone like Gaal to feel comfortable seeking treatment, Semper Fi Fund case worker Christie Hasheider said.
“They never reached out for help before and maybe they will now"after seeing Gaal’s accomplishments, she said.
Over the course of 63 days on the road, Riley tried to stay sane through audio Spanish lessons and music while cruising at 12 mph behind his friend, and Gaal had to push through the physical slog of mile after grueling mile for eight-to-10 hours a day, and keep dark thoughts at bay.
“The biggest thing is it just lets you just kind of put any thoughts or negativity you have in your mind to the side, and you’re focused on the task at hand in front of you,” he said. “You don’t spend that time wondering, what if, what if.”
For Gaal, it was also a way to get to know his country.
“Everybody spends life going over the country at 30,000 feet or above, or going 70-to-80 mph, so they don’t get a chance to really get an appreciation of the country for what it is,” he said.
Despite the devastation of his injury and his long painful recovery, Gaal has a special reason to look at the bright side of what happened to him: after returning to the U.S., Gaal agreed to be interviewed for a book on wounded veterans. Over the course of several interviews with author Lisa Graves, Gaal and Graves (now Graves-Gaal) fell in love and got married. After that, Gaal says, he stopped looking at the negatives.
“Four year ago, it seemed like my life took a turn for the worse, but to me, I can look at it now and say my life took a turn for the better,” he said.