Just four years ago — and many times before and since — a doctor broke the stillness of a waiting room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
As then-24-year-old Toran “Chance” Gaal lay unconscious with critical injuries from an explosion in Afghanistan, the grandfather who raised him in Oakhurst was praying to God the doctor wasn’t bringing worse news.
But she was — just not about Jim Gaal’s grandson.
The doctor approached another family.
“She told them the guy was going to pretty much be a vegetable,” Jim Gaal recalled overhearing. “That was really hard. I didn’t know what Chance was going to be.”
As Toran Gaal endured a brutal fight for life, that haunting question remained ever-present on the minds of his loved ones and, it seemed, nearly every person in eastern Madera County.
Today, Gaal is giving his hometown — and the nation — a bold answer. After countless surgeries and years of rehabilitation, the double amputee departed on a handcycle (a bicycle powered by arms instead of legs) on June 1 from San Diego with the goal of biking to Arlington County, Virginia by Aug. 2 to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund. On Sunday, he was in Houston, Missouri.
Over the past 21/2 weeks, Gaal has been averaging more than 100 miles a day, even though before the journey began, he only had ever biked a little over 26 miles in one shot.
Before he left last month, I called Gaal and his fiancée Lisa Graves, expecting to be inspired by what he was setting out to do. And I am, of course, but for so many more reasons than expected.
Halfway through our interview, Gaal said, “I don’t remember a lot from before the injury. … I try to remember, but I don’t remember.”
When we got off the phone, I was shaky.
I grew up with Gaal. We sort of knew each other, the way small-town kids sort of know everybody in their quiet corners of the world. He was a friend of my best friend’s older brother and a fellow athlete.
And although we weren’t close, something about the realization that he couldn’t remember much about that loud, energetic boy I knew rattled me.
At the time of his injury, I was working as a reporter for the Sierra Star in Oakhurst and was tasked with the enormous responsibility of updating the people in our hometowns of his progress.
Sitting down to write each new story, I saw him dribbling a basketball on the court, boisterously joking and teasing through a crowd and standing before me passionately explaining why he needed to be a Marine, how this country’s freedom was under attack every day.
At first, things looked bleak for his recovery. To combat a bad infection, doctors amputated both his legs above the knees and slit his stomach to the chest so they could routinely clean him out. He was in a medically induced coma, was connected to breathing tubes and feeding tubes, had a fractured skull and lost part of his pelvis.
And, as I recently learned, lost most of his long-term memory.
“That’s probably one of the most frustrating things for him,” Graves said. “Most people look at him and they see his legs aren’t there and they think that’s his biggest limitation, and it’s not by a long shot. It’s the brain injury that plagues him a million times more.”
There were once good and bad memories.
Life for Toran (the name he prefers now over Chance) began as a malnourished infant in an orphanage in India.
“He reminded me of the pictures you see of those starving kids in Africa and those other third-world countries,” said Jim Gaal of when his daughter adopted him.
But soon, he would grow up as a healthy American boy in eastern Madera County. And after his mom remarried and moved to Sacramento when he was in the sixth grade, he stayed in Oakhurst with his grandparents.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps in the spring of 2007 and during basic training was picked to serve in the Presidential Guard. During President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the 6-foot 3-inch 220-pounder was the second Marine behind the president holding a flag — one of eight chosen for the first procession.
Gaal could have left the Marine Corps in March of 2011 — three months before his near-fatal injury — but he reenlisted. He had carried too many flag-draped caskets of fallen soldiers. Gaal said he wanted, needed, to go to Afghanistan.
And then one morning, as an infantry squad leader in a Marine outpost in a country far from home, a buried explosive device ripped the life he knew apart.
Waking up later in a U.S. hospital without his legs, the obstacles to a full recovery were immense. He spent months just learning to talk again.
Seized with feelings of guilt that he had lived while others died, he became “very dark” for a while. Eventually, he would share some of these feelings with fellow Marines in support groups. It helped.
And later, outfitted with prosthetic legs, he would learn to walk again, even drive again.
He went surfing. He started going to the gym. He participated in CrossFit competitions and marathons. He became a youth basketball coach. And a new adventure was born with friend Brian Riley, another now-retired young Marine who has one leg amputated below the knee.
“One day, we were like, ‘Dude, why don’t we go on a trip? Like, ride my bike across America.’ Just joking around or whatever,” Gaal said.
But to Gaal’s surprise, Riley responded, “Dude, why don’t we just go across America?”
So that was that. Gaal would bike and Riley would drive behind him as a safety precaution.
And a little over a year ago, in walked Lisa Graves, who thankfully became the logistical fairy godmother for this epic journey. The author met Gaal interviewing him and other veterans at Freedom Station, a housing facility in San Diego for injured military run by the nonprofit Warrior Foundation.
“He has a larger-than-life personality,” Graves said of Gaal. “There is something he has that I’ve never seen in another man. It’s just this amazing ability to be grateful and be in the moment and live fully and love fully. … There’s almost this childlike innocence about how he sees the world. He’s not jaded.”
“He’s not jaded.”
I couldn’t help but think of the young Chance I knew as, well, maybe a little jaded. He was funny and fun-loving but underneath, he seemed to me, a little angry, a little insecure.
But his fiancée was right. The 28-year-old Toran I heard on the other end of the line was not jaded.
I heard a mature, thoughtful, intelligent voice, one imbued with wisdom and compassion — and a sense of peace.
And still, that great sense of humor.
“With no pun intended,” (I could just see that toothy grin through the telephone), he told me his bike ride is about encouraging people to just put “one foot in front of the other.”
“We all have adversity in our life, whether it’s big or small. … We should all use it for character building. I think we all need to use adversity to get through low points and high points and use it for inspiration for ourselves and also for others.”
Graves called his memory loss “partially a blessing in disguise.” It’s shielded him from some dark memories, like some of the experiences of war. But it’s still hard. She said he doesn’t remember nearly everyone he knew before his injury by name or face.
But his grandpa and older brother, Dominic Trupiano, say forgotten memories haven’t negatively affected their bond. They are nothing but proud of the changes they’ve seen in Gaal.
“He was always very charismatic, he’s been that way for a really long time, but I don’t necessarily think he was as open with people he didn’t know beforehand,” Trupiano said.
“I think because of what’s happened to him, and the way he’s been able to overcome, it’s given him an inner confidence and that confidence helped him kind of evolve to where he is now.”
When he returns to the San Diego area, Gaal wants to work as a motivational speaker. He already has shared inspiration with many, including a freshman class at Yosemite High School taught by his old high school basketball coach, Kevin Shaw.
“He stood up there and just spoke from his heart,” Shaw recalled. “He really had a message of, ‘Don’t let things stop you or slow you down.’ ”
Of Gaal’s ride across America, his brother said, “It’s really hard when you are sitting there with challenges and you think you can’t do it and then he rolls up and tells you about his story. That kind of motivation and encouragement gets to you.”
Gaal said the only limits are those we set on ourselves.
And while Gaal’s bike ride is about giving to others — to spread inspiration and to raise money for a nonprofit that provided food, lodging and airfare for his family when he was in the hospital — the ride is also for him.
“It’s going to be an awesome journey, not just for the cause, but for the individual,” Gaal said before departing.
“I hope it will give me insight to life.”
From Houston, Missouri on Sunday, Gaal told me he’d already had found a lot of that insight.
“Being out on the road away from my family, I’m starting to see the bigger picture of my life and the things I’m extremely grateful for.”
For all the noble reasons for his journey, I most cherish a simple image: A boy and his bike, eager to explore, eager to find himself.
I think of all the things he’s already has seen and experienced: The fresh breeze of the Pacific Ocean, the red rocks of Arizona, the great Rocky Mountains, the open fields and crops of the Midwest.
And I think of all the people who have lined streets in small towns and cities across America to welcome him, embrace him, escort him, cheer him on.
And I feel happy, very happy, absolutely sure that he is creating so many new, beautiful memories.