It was the most heart-wrenching, horrifying day of his 24 year-old life - a day that began a journey so physically and emotionally challenging, its impossible to find the right words to describe it.
The day was June 26, 2011 - the day 6-foot-3, 220-pound U.S. Marine Sargeant Toran “Chance” Gaal, an infantry squad leader, stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while fighting in the war in the Sangin district, one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in Afghanistan - the day everything went dark.
The violent explosion blew off his left leg below the knee, and his right leg was severely damaged, while causing horrendous injuries to his chest and skull. Doctors at the time said although he was lucky to be alive, he would spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair. Severe, life-threatening infection forced doctors to eventually amputate the right leg above the knee, and the entire left leg, including hip and half his pelvis.
But on Sunday, March 6, after more than 100 surgeries (75 in the first month after the incident), and nearly five years of exhaustive and painful rehabilitation, the 2005 Yosemite High School graduate was the center of attention - walking tall and proud 20 yards - the length of the aisle - to stand before 200 family members and friends to exchange wedding vows with Lisa Graves.
“Not only did I get to marry my best friend and the love of my life who has stood by me no matter what, my wedding day was also a celebration to show everyone, especially my grandfather and grandmother, how far I have come since the the accident,” Toran said.
“I’ve never been big on the princess thing ... but our wedding day was straight out of a magical fairytale from beginning to end,” Lisa said.
Gaal’s best man and one of his groomsmen had special meaning for Gaal.
Groomsman Justin “Doc” Schneider was the Corpsman who rushed to Gaal’s aid in Afghanistan after the explosion, and best man Rian Martinez, was Toran’s best friend in his company.
Schneider first met Gaal in January of 2011 during deployment training.
“Toran, in a way, chose me to be the squad corpsman jokingly saying that I looked like I could carry him compared to the other corpsman assigned to the platoon,” Schneider said.
Still in active duty with the Navy working at Camp Pendleton as an instructor, Schneider clearly remembers the day Gaal was injured.
“That day, it could have happened to any of us,” Schneider said. “We were all within a 30-foot radius and we had all walked over the IED. I remember the sights, the smells, and the actions everyone in the squad took to make sure we got him out of there as quick as possible. Our squad was preparing to depart a compound we had spent the night in to continue an operation we were participating in. It was early in the morning and Toran was making his rounds, waking all of us up when he stepped on an IED that was placed in the center of the courtyard we were all sleeping in. Immediately everyone woke up, startled and pretty mentally out of it, and began assessing the situation. Toran was there, face down when a couple of Marines and I made my way to him to begin treatment. About 45 minutes later. we were able to get a helicopter Medivac for him, as well as another Marine who had taken shrapnel to the face and side of his head.”
Schneider said watching Gaal recover from the injuries has been inspirational.
“I’ve gotten to see his transformation back to himself, and he has become even better in the process,” Schneider said. “I’ve watched him adapt and overcome his physical challenges as well as the mental challenges, even though those injuries can be the hardest to heal.”
From Oakhurst to White House
After graduating from YHS, Gaal briefly attended West Hills Community College, before enlisting in the Marine Corps in 2007. He quickly caught the attention of officers during basic training and was selected to serve in the Presidential Guard, and was one of the eight soldiers standing with President Barack Obama during Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.
Debbie Sebastian taught at YHS, and had Toran as a teacher’s aid in math class.
“Even as a teenager, he was a standout for his thoughtfulness, good sportsmanship on the basketball court, and his loyalty,” Sebastian said. “As my teacher’s assistant, he was trustworthy and could always be relied upon to complete tasks with a ‘can do’ attitude and a smile.”
Kevin Shaw, who still teaches math at YHS, was Toran’s basketball coach.
“Even though he was undersized against many teams, Chance was our “Big,” and always played larger than his size because he played with a lot of emotion and heart, which made him the best rebounder on our team,” Shaw said. “He was our vocal leader ... the heartbeat of our team, and it was an honor to coach him ... he made me a better coach.”
Shaw said one of the sayings his team used that year was ‘It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce back that counts.’
“Chance definitely personified that quote later in his life, especially how he has bounced back from his accident,” Shaw said.
Off to Afghanistan
Gaal was first deployed to Iraq in 2006, then went to the White House in 2008-2009. He was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, and again in March of 2011, leading to the incident that would forever change his life.
He could have received an honorable discharge from the Marines three months prior to his injury, but instead reenlisted.
Call to grandparents
Gaal’s grandfather and grandmother, Jim and Barbara Gaal of Oakhurst, received the call the day it happened, informing them of Toran’s life-threatening injuries.
“At the time he was already in a Marine hospital in Germany,” Jim said. “The next weekend, he was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Maine Corps flew us there as soon as we could get packed.”
Jim said seeing his big, strong grandson unconscious in the hospital bed was very emotional.
“The first thing I did was put my hands on his head and pray for him,” Jim said.
Jim, Barbara, and mother Pegi were bedside with Toran for a full month, while Toran was in an induced coma, being feed intravenously.
“There was a nurse with him 24-hours a day, and he was going into surgery every other day to clean out any infection in his chest area,” Jim said.
Jim said he was in the ICU waiting room when he overheard a doctor tell the father of another soldier that his son’s head was damaged so badly, he would never function normally again.
“That was scary to hear,” Jim said. “At that time they had not operated on Chance’s head yet, so his long-term outcome was still unknown.”
After a month, Jim and Barbara were forced to return to Oakhurst so Jim could continue treatments for his prostate cancer (now in remission).
After two weeks, the Gaals returned to the hospital to find Toran out of the ICU and awake. It was in that hospital room that the Gaals were able to witness their grandson receiving the Purple Heart.
“The thing that got us through this was a lot of prayer,” Jim said. “We are a Bible-believing family and we pray a lot. My sister-in-law has texted me a Bible verse seven days a week for the past five years. Those verses meant a lot to us after Chance got hurt.”
Defying the odds
After three months in Maryland, Toran was moved to the Veteran’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Palo Alto, where he endured intense speech, psychological, and physical therapy three hours a day, five days a week for five months, before being moved to Balboa Naval Medical Center San Diego in January 2012, to be fitted for his prosthetic legs, and continued rehabilitation.
He transitioned to Freedom Station, less than a mile away from Balboa Naval Medical Center in June of 2013, but continued on as an outpatient at Balboa until February 2014.
Not only did Toran defy the odds, learn how to talk again, and walk on prosthetic legs, he set his sights on competing in marathons and learning how to surf. He still had that competitive spirit he had as a basketball player at Yosemite High.
Toran said he received strength during his recovery from fellow Marines still overseas.
“Early on, I had Marine friends who were still overseas ... they were not giving up on the fight in Afghanistan, so I could not give up my fight to get better,” Toran said. “During those dark and bleak days, the one constant I always had was my grandpa and grandma. I am really blessed. This was not easy on them either. They were always there ... no matter what time of day or night I called. My grandpa has always guided me in the right direction.”
Ride across America
Over the past three years, Toran has completed 12 marathons on his custom built hand-powered cycle (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, and the Marine Corps Marathon in DC).
On June 1, 2015, Gaal left San Diego on his hand-cranked cycle, for a 63-day, 4,067 mile Ride Across America to raise awareness and $50,000 for wounded veterans through the Semper Fi Fund.
His trip ended Aug. 2, as he passed the Marine Corps War Memorial and a row of American flags, into the arms of his then fiancee Lisa Graves, and her 9 year-old daughter at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Gaal was joined on the trip by Brian Riley (in a support van), a retired Marine who had his left leg amputated below the knee from a war injury, and Graves and her daughter. Gaal and Riley met in rehab in San Diego.
He got in shape for his journey riding 10 to 20 miles a day for months, and with strength training five days a week.
Gaal, who rode up to 10 hours a day during the trip, said the roughest part was getting over the Rocky Mountains.
“It was pretty much one crank at a time,” Gaal said.
See more of Gaal’s Ride Across America at www.torangaal.com, or on Facebook Ride Across America.
After completing his unbelievable ride, Toran suddenly found himself in another, and totally unexpected, dark place.
“A good friend got killed the same day I was injured in Afghanistan ... and I had, for the first time, the opportunity to pay my respects to him at Arlington National Cemetery after completing the ride. I hadn’t dealt with that before the end of the ride, and I got caught up emotionally after that,” Toran said. “Lisa helped me out of that. If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
When not training, Toran is making presentations to hospitalized veterans, elementary school students, employees of large companies, and sports teams - delivering a a message of hope, courage, overcoming challenges, and adopting a ‘never give up’ attitude.
He is also in his third season coaching a youth basketball team in a league sponsored by the Escondido Police Department.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, but Lisa encouraged me to do it so I took that leap of faith and I’m glad I did,” Toran said. “It’s fun coaching the kids, and I enjoy giving back to the community.”
Lisa has given Toran a fitting nickname: Captain America.
“Like the character Steve Rogers, Toran is strong, powerful, unique, and resilient,” Lisa said. “Toran is an incredible inspiration.”
After being engaged on Jan. 26, 2015, someone nominated the couple for the opportunity to receive a free “Dream Wedding” from retired Marine Colonel Al and Cathie Ransom, owners of Los Willows Wedding Estate in Fallbrook and Paradise Falls in Oceanside.
The Ransoms are huge supporters of Wounded Warriors and host one Wounded Warrior wedding on their estate each year. The Ransoms personally select a deserving couple to receive a complete wedding ceremony and reception on their estate.
Toran walked down the aisle in his prosthetic legs and transitioned to his wheelchair for the reception. Prior to the wedding, Toran and Lisa spent time practicing wheelchair dancing several times a week with a dance instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Escondido in preparation for the big day.
Toran thought he knew every detail of his wedding day, but Lisa had a surprise for him. She arranged for songwriter/singer Brett James, to fly from Nashville and personally sing his song “You Save Me” (recorded by Kenny Chesney) for the couple’s ‘first dance.’
“Although I met him after the wedding ceremony, I didn’t know who Brett was, till he got on stage at the reception and introduced himself,” Toran said. “Brett singing our wedding song was unbelievable.”
“We had more than 200 guests attend our wedding and it was an amazing night,” Lisa said.
While the couple was enjoying their honeymoon in Big Bear with their two bulldogs and Siberian Husky, the framing of a house was underway in Valley Center - the custom home that, upon its completion, will be gifted to Toran and Lisa by Homes For Our Troops.
Toran was adopted from the Mission of Hope Orphanage in Calcutta, India, after being left on the front doorstep of the orphanage as a newborn baby. At the conclusion of the adoption process, airline attendants on three connecting flights cared for Toran prior to his landing at John Wayne Airport in Orange County in 1987, to the waiting arms of his new mother Pegi, and grandparents.
“He was so little when he first arrived ... he looked like one of those starving children in a third-world country,” Jim said.
After Toran’s mother remarried and moved to Sacramento when he was in the sixth grade at Oakhurst Elementary School, he stayed with his grandparents.
“As a youngster, he loved to ride our pony and later our horse,” Jim Gaal said. “When he was nine years-old I took him on a four-day pack-mule trip to the high country in Yosemite. The next year, although he still fed the horses in the morning, he started playing in the Yosemite Youth Basketball Association league. He fell in love with basketball and would spend hours shooting baskets in the backyard. From then on, he was not too interested in going on any more horse trips.”
Jim said Toran’s recovery and progress over the past five years is nothing short of miraculous.
“The wedding sort of symbolized a new beginning for Chance ... and we are so happy for him.”
Lisa writes book - “AFTER: The battle has just begun”
Lisa met Toran while writing the book “AFTER: The battle has just begun,” detailing the stories of eight combat-injured Marines who sustained life-altering injuries in combat, and their inspiring stories of heroism and the re-building of independent, productive, and fulfilling lives after seemingly impossible circumstances.
She met Toran at Freedom Station, a housing facility in San Diego for wounded members of the military.
Lisa explained that the book looks at the struggles of these incredible men to reshape their lives after combat. It also sets these stories within the context of current veteran healthcare - injury, suicide, and disability statistics - and looks briefly at the impact on the caregivers who support these men.
“Being face-to-face with combat-injured veterans has given me an insight that all Americans should have,” Lisa said. “Veterans of the Vietnam era began the process of opening our eyes to the grim realities that await veterans both psychologically and physically. These stories show how much more we have to accomplish.”
As the title of the book suggests - “After: The Battle has Just Begun” - is not about war or politics - it is about figuring out what it takes to move forward ‘after’ the war.
“I wrote this book to raise awareness of what our warriors need most when they return, what the government does and doesn’t provide and why there is a high demand for private non-profits to fill the gaps,” explained Lisa. “ Make no mistake - we are in this period of recovery and rehabilitation for decades to come. The book also introduces the non-profit organization Warrior Foundation~Freedom Station (WFFS) which has taken on the task of helping our combat-injured men and women make the daunting transition from military to civilian life.”
Toran lived in transitional housing provided by WFFS for 18 months when first released from the hospital in San Diego.
“The book is not about eight Marines ... it’s about eight guys who learned how to cope with life in their own ways after serious injuries.” Toran said. “It is a very inspiring book. Lisa did a good job telling their stories.”
The book was released on the day of the couple’s wedding, March 6, and 100% of the proceeds from the book are going to WFFS. The book was written under Lisa’a pen name, RJ Belle, and the e-version of the book is available for $5.99 at amazon.com. The print version of the book will be available the end of March.
Lisa Graves Gaal’s words from her recently released book “AFTER: The Battle has Just Begun.”
We often overlook the emotional scars that stay with those who treat the injured on the battlefield. I believe these unsung heroes are among the most affected when they return from war. I know one such warrior, Justin Schneider - 'Doc' to the guys. His quick thinking, professional application, and poise under pressure saved Toran's life. Although Doc doesn't like to take credit for his part in Toran's second chance at life, it is a fact that but for him Toran would not be with us today.
I am incredibly thankful that Justin is a part of Toran's life. When I watch the two of them interact I can't help but smile. I can't relate to the bond they have. I don't think many people can, but it is a beautiful interaction to witness. I am blessed to be able to see it with my own two eyes. In Doc's Words "I think back on the day of the IED blast that caused Toran's injuries. I remember the sights, the smells, and the actions everyone in the squad took to make sure we got Gaal out of there as quick as possible. It wasn't until we put him on the helicopter that it truly sunk in. Gaal was a leader, and although sometimes the stuff he did or said got under my skin, we all respected him.
The following are the words of Justin ‘Doc’ Schneider from the book “AFTER: The Battle has Just Begun.”
“Watching his recovery, accomplishing as much he has, its inspirational. I’ve watched him adapt and overcome his physical challenges as well the mental, even though those injuries can be the hardest to heal. Being involved in his life since his accident, and talking about that day and the events that took place after has helped in my mental recovery.
Every combat veteran who makes it home unscathed thinks back to the ones who didn’t come home or the ones who came back physically different. We feel that it should have been us instead. I blamed myself for a few things and had some dark thoughts for a long time. I couldn’t even talk to the Marines I had treated for injuries. The invisible wounds are the hardest, and I know that each one of us struggle to deal with that in our own way.
The friendship Toran and I have is different than most other friendships. He often thanks me for doing what I did, what we as a squad did, to bring him home and that’s when it all makes sense. We all had different reasons for being there doing what we were doing but at the end of the day, it was all about the guy to the left and right of you.
The selflessness I witnessed during our deployment still amazes me and in some crazy way makes me wish I could go back, with the same guys, to do the same thing. Watching the gentlemen that I was with for those seven months overcome their injuries, start or add to their families, and live successful and happy lives has helped in my recovery.
I hope that all veterans know that when the days seem dark - even though you might not have remained in touch - they always have the guys that were next to them to talk to, to come to for support.
Toran’s story is one I tell often. The fact that he was able to overcome it all, pick himself up and get to where he is today is always a great story.
From competing in marathons to riding across the country on a hand bike, and his positive attitude while doing it inspires people. It proves that our wounded warriors are still here and still capable of doing great things.”