Double amputee completes handcycle ride across US for wounded veterans

A friend greets former Marine Toran Gaal at the end of his cross-country handcycle ride that began in San Diego, California, on June 1 and ended Sunday in Arlington, Virginia.
HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES
August 2, 2015

Stars and Stripes | By Heath Druzin | Published: August 2, 2015 | Link to Article

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.

A friend greets former Marine Toran Gaal at the end of his cross-country handcycle ride that began in San Diego, California, on June 1 and ended Sunday in Arlington, Virginia. HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES

A friend greets former Marine Toran Gaal at the end of his cross-country handcycle ride that began in San Diego, California, on June 1 and ended Sunday in Arlington, Virginia. - HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES

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.

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

Former Marine Commandant to chair Semper Fi Fund

Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos speaks during the Hall of Heroes induction ceremony for Medal of Honor Recipient, Sgt. Dakota Meyer USMC at the Pentagon September 16, 2011 .
(Photo: Marine Corps Times file)
July 17, 2015

Military Times | By Hope Hodge Seck, Staff writer | 1:03 p.m. EDT July 17, 2015 | Link to Article

The 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps is stepping into a new role at the Semper Fi Fund and America's Fund. Read the rest of this entry »

Disfigured by war, veteran now says ‘I found my place’

United States Marine veteran Ronny "Tony" Porta, wounded in Iraq in 2007, with his wife, Deicy Porta, in the master bedroom of his new "smart" home.
(Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
July 4, 2015

USA TODAY | Gregg Zoroya | 3:06 p.m. EDT July 3, 2015 | Link to Article

LOVETTSVILLE, Va. — Ronny "Tony" Porta was searching for a place where people could see past the disfigurement left by war, where cruel mutterings about his appearance or unfeeling questions about whether such wounds were "worth it" did not exist.

More than two years later, Porta says, "I found my place." Read the rest of this entry »

Semper Fi Open raises 135k for injured military

Opening ceremonies of the Semper Fi Open Golf Tournament in Vista featured the Color Guard and bagpipers.
July 1, 2015

U-T San Diego | By Linda McIntosh | 1:10 p.m. June 29, 2015 | Link to Article

Vista, CA — The annual Semper Fi Open golf tournament raised $135,000 for the Semper Fi Fund to help injured service members and their families. Speakers at the event included Rear Admiral Richard Jefferies and BJ Ganem, an injured Marine supported by the nonprofit fund. Read the rest of this entry »

Wounded vets stop in Williams on cross-country journey

Brian Riley (left) and Toran Gaal take a break in the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel lobby. The two are traveling across the country to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund. Ryan Williams/WGCN
June 11, 2015

Williams News | by Wendy Howell, Reporter | 6/9/2015 10:02:00 AM | Link to Article

Williams, Ariz. - Toran Gaal and Brian Riley are paying it forward. The Purple Heart recipients have embarked upon the Ride Across America to create awareness of disabled veterans and raise donations for the Semper Fi Fund. Read the rest of this entry »

Iraq war veteran forms bond with Boston bombing victim

Click the above image to watch the video.
June 1, 2015

CBS News | MAY 25, 2015, 12:25 PM | Link to Video

After Patrick Downes lost his leg in the Boston Marathon bombing, he received help from BJ Ganem, a veteran of the Iraq war. Ganem, an amputee himself, helped Downes adjust to life with a prosthetic. CBS News correspondent Don Dahler spoke with both men about the bond they've formed. Read the rest of this entry »

Double Amputee Starts 52-Day Cross-Country Fundraising Journey to Arlington on Bike

nbc-toran-gaal
June 1, 2015

NBC-7 San Diego | By Samantha Tatro | Published at 1:55 PM PDT on Jun 1, 2015 | Updated at 10:53 AM PDT on Tuesday, Jun 2, 2015 | Link to Coverage

A San Diego-area veteran who lost both of his legs while fighting in Afghanistan is hand-cycling to Arlington, Virginia, on a 52-day journey to raise money for charity.
Toran Gaal, of Escondido, started his journey Monday in downtown San Diego for his Ride Across America. Read the rest of this entry »

Former Marine Officer Breaks World Record Plank to Benefit Semper Fi Fund

George-Hood-Planking-2
June 1, 2015

George Hood, 57, spent a total of five hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds in the abdominal plank position on Saturday in Oceanside
NBC San Diego | By Monica Garske | Published at 6:30 PM PDT on May 30, 2015 | Updated at 12:37 PM PDT on Sunday, May 31, 2015 | Link to story | Follow us: @nbcsandiego on Twitter | NBCSanDiego on Facebook Read the rest of this entry »

Getting to the real meaning of Memorial Day

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May 26, 2015

Blog by Kristine Schellhaas | May 22, 2014 | Link to Post

It’s May – Military Appreciation Month – and Memorial Day is upon us. There’s no doubt in my mind that these two events coincide in the same month because of the continued sacrifices made by our service members and the families of our service members. Read the rest of this entry »

Semper Fi Fund Caregiver’s Retreat

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May 21, 2015

Ramblings of a Marine Wife | May 20, 2015 | By Kara | Link to Story

This past weekend, I attended a retreat for caregivers of wounded warriors, organized by the Semper Fi Fund and the America’s Fund. I honestly didn’t feel like I was entitled to go, but the husband’s case manager insisted I should. The weekend was all about relaxing our minds and bodies. There was about 33 of us, mostly wives, but a few moms as well. I had a previously met a few girls, but overall, I really didn’t know anyone. Read the rest of this entry »

Benefit for Semper Fi Fund Helps Veterans

Click here to see the video coverage
May 8, 2015

WICU-HD(NBC) and WSEE-HD(CBS) TV-12 | Posted: May 01, 2015 12:13 AM EDT | Updated: May 08, 2015 12:13 AM EDT | By Deedee Sun CONNECT | Link to Article

Erie, PA - A benefit at Bullfrog Bar on Thursday night goes toward the Semper Fi Fund, an organization that helps out injured veterans from after 9/11. Read the rest of this entry »

Challenged to Serve – Youth and adults from the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association assist service members at the Semper Fi Fund’s Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program Dixie Challenge Clinic.

AQHJ Article - 2015 Semper Fi Fund Dixie Challenge 4
May 8, 2015

By Annise Montplaisir, AQHA online communications and publications intern | The American Quarter Horse Journal | May 7, 2015 | Link to Article

The pride and beauty of the American spirit was on full display at the Dixie Challenge clinic, April 24-26 in Canton, Mississippi. The event, sponsored by the Semper Fi Fund’s Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program and the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association, was attended by 16 servicemen and -women and more than 50 volunteers from the MQHA and Mississippi Quarter Horse Youth Association. Read the rest of this entry »

Wounded veterans back in the saddle

Rebecca Fletcher of Deale, Maryland, and fellow Marines ride Friday during the Semper Fi Fund and Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program clinic at the Canton Multipurpose and Equine Center in Madison County. The horsemanship program and inaugural Dixie Challenge continues through Sunday.
(Photo: Photos by Greg Jenson/The Clarion-Ledger)
April 27, 2015

The Clarion-Ledger | Jacob Threadgill | April 24, 2015, 9:34 p.m. CDT | Link to Article

Canton, MS - There was always one soothing thought commanding officer John Mayer would share with his machine gunner Carlos Rochel during the difficult times of two tours of duty in Iraq, "nothing is better for the inside of a person than the outside of a horse."

Rochel is one of 16 veterans, 14 of which are Marines, in Canton through the weekend competing in the inaugural Dixie Challenge through the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program, which is sponsored by the Semper Fi Fund. Read the rest of this entry »

Wounded Warriors train for triathlon on Pensacola Beach

abc-3-image
April 24, 2015

WEAR-TV ABC-3 | Updated: Friday, April 24 2015, 10:15 PM CDT | Link to Article

Pensacola, FL - Fourteen Wounded Warriors are on Pensacola Beach training for a triathlon.

They're taking part in a sports camp put on by the "Semper Fi Fund." Read the rest of this entry »

Boston Bombing Survivor Heather Abbott Visits Fox News with America’s Fund Mentor BJ Ganem

Click here to see BJ and survivor Heather Abbott talk to Fox News about their very special friendship.
April 22, 2015

Fox News Channel | Apr. 21, 2015 - 4:32 | Link to the News Segment
Boston, MATwo years ago, BJ Ganem and fellow members of the Semper Fi Fund/America's Fund family traveled to Boston hospitals to meet and support victims of the Marathon bombing. Today, they continue to be a part of the survivors lives, helping them navigate their recoveries every step of the way. Read the rest of this entry »