Former Marine Sgt. Toran Gaal does not remember what happened on June 26, 2011, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, one of the country’s most dangerous regions.
The young Indian American – who was adopted at two months of age from an orphanage in Kolkata and raised by his adoptive grandparents James and Barbara Gaal in Oakhurst, near Yosemite, Calif. – was on his third deployment at the time of the explosion. Gaal spent two months in a coma in Afghanistan and Germany, before waking up at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
“When I first woke up, I was really mad at myself. I felt I had let a lot of guys down,” Gaal, an infantry squad leader while in Afghanistan, told India-West.
The American patriot lost both of his legs in the explosion, one above the knee and the other at the hip. He broke his pelvis, fractured his chest and head, damaging his front temporal lobe. Gaal still suffers from bouts of memory lapse, and doctors held out little hope that he would ever walk again.
But Gaal was determined to regain his mobility and set off on a two-year process of recovery. And on Aug. 2, the 28-year-old double amputee finished a 63-day “Ride Across America,” hand-cycling his way from San Diego, Calif., to Arlington, Virginia, to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the process, Gaal raised $49,000 for the Semper Fi fund, which supports wounded veterans and their families.
“My injuries were so catastrophic,” Gaal said, recalling the years he spent recovering from the explosion, including learning how to talk again. “There were so many days that were so dark and bleak. I would tell my grandpa ‘come pick me up, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ But my grandpa always encouraged me to go on. And in my heart, I always knew I would walk again.”
With the aid of prosthetic legs, Gaal took his first steps in March 2012, eight months after he was hit. By 2014, he was on his legs about 95 percent of the time and also took up hand-cycling and surfing.
While in rehabilitation, Gaal met Marine veteran Brian Riley, who lost his leg in Afghanistan. The two hatched the plan to ride across America.
“I consider myself an adaptive athlete,” said Gaal, who attended the University of Dayton in Ohio on a full basketball scholarship before his first deployment with the Marines to Iraq in 2007. “I wanted to prove to the world that no enemy can knock us down,” he said.
During the 63-day ride, Gaal and Riley were feted by veterans’ organizations and town leaders at many of their stops. Lisa Graves-Gaal, a writer who married Toran Gaal last March, told India-West the encouragement the two men received on their journey propelled them to go forward. The pair also received a lot of support from local hoteliers who would comp them a room for a night.
Gaal and Riley would start their 60-mile days at 1 a.m. in the morning, to escape the heat. Gaal’s hand cycle positions him parallel to the pavement; he said he could feel the heat rising up to him, especially in Arizona.
The biggest challenge came during the climb up the Colorado Rocky Mountains, with an elevation of 11,000 feet. “With each elevation change, the air got a little thinner,” which made it difficult to breathe, said Gaal.
The former Marine said he was inspired by the many veterans he met along his journey. The final day, Aug. 2, was especially poignant as Gaal and Riley laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“My emotions were running so high,” said the veteran, noting that many high-level military personnel had come to watch the ceremony.
Gaal said his next goal is to build a home for his wife Lisa and Isabella, the couple’s nine-year-old adopted daughter from Guatemala. He is also considering becoming a motivational speaker.
“I have the best life any man could live,” he said.