DEL MAR, Calif., Nov. 15, 2017 — As the calm of being in the Pacific Ocean washes over him, Toran Gaal, a medically retired Marine Corps sergeant, examines a clean wave and carves out a path.
Gaal is a former infantry squad leader who now lives in Valley Center, California. He’s participating in the Naval Medical Center San Diego’s Surfing Clinic, which he said helps him to feel like himself again.
“I’m grateful for programs like this,” said Gaal, a bilateral amputee. “To be in a place like the ocean, it allows me to be closer to the people I’ve lost. I feel like I’m lifted up. I feel like I’m around them when I’m out there. I feel like they’re around me, watching over me, making sure I’m safe. The ocean allows me to feel close to them and gives me a chance to gain relationships with some of the volunteers and to be happy.”
Call to Service
Gaal said he joined the Marine Corps to repay the opportunities he’s received. “I was adopted from birth from India. Being a U.S. citizen has given me purpose, a life of nourishment, happiness and freedom,” he said. “It’s an honor to serve.”
When Gaal was in the sixth grade, his older brother joined the Marine Corps. He said this helped him down the road when he was injured.
On June 26, 2011, during a deployment to Afghanistan, Gaal was injured by an improvised explosive device. On his left side he is an above-the-knee amputee, and on the right he has a hemipelvectomy, or high-level pelvic amputation. He also has damage to his left eye and a plate in his head. He gets migraines, has post-traumatic stress disorder and a severe traumatic brain injury.
“When I came to Bethesda [Walter Reed National Military Medical Center] in 2011, my brother had to identify me,” Gaal said. “I had all of the information on me from surgery so he didn’t have to quite identify me, but he had to receive me because they didn’t think I was going to live. I was hanging on by strings. I’m just grateful he lived there.”
He had to learn how to talk and write again because he had lost most of his cognitive functions. Gaal estimates that he underwent more than 100 surgeries from 2011 to 2014 in Bethesda and at NMC-SD. He said he didn’t hit the “dark place” until after he got out of the Marine Corps in 2015.
“In 2015, I rode my hand cycle across the United States of America. I did my own solo [ride] from San Diego to Washington, D.C., by way of Boston in 2015,” he said. “It took 63 days. When I finished, I went into a place that really didn’t allow me to think I was struggling with anything but gave some concern to my spouse, Lisa. She definitely thought something was wrong. I kept going down and started pushing people out of my life. I didn’t really know if I was going to be around much longer. I went into an inpatient facility here in San Diego through the Veterans Affairs, the Aspire Center, for about a year.”
He had a massive seizure while he was there. Gaal said he said he just wanted to give up but his wife wouldn’t let him. “I just wanted to be dead because that is what I felt was important, was to die,” he said.
Gaal said while he was at the VA Aspire Center, he didn’t feel like he belonged because most of the other patients were dealing with addictions such as alcohol or drugs. “But I realized if I don’t get my act together, I’m going to lose everything I have,” he said. “I won’t have anything that means anything to me, like my wife. I’m the kind of guy that struggles with how things are said — the way things are said, the tones in which people say things — they must not really care or whatever. It’s just certain things that trigger me and the way I think. I’ve definitely become more aware of it. I’m a work in progress. I’m learning how to communicate.”
Gaal said his wife knew how to be there for him and listen. “She is the one person that saved my life,” he said. “If it wasn’t for her, I would not be sitting here today.”
Gaal said what helped him was learning the coping mechanisms and working through survivor’s guilt and self-blame. His wife encouraged him to participate in programs like the surfing clinic, where he’s reintegrating and making friends.
“Bob Bishop, he’s like my dad. He and his wife, I’m so close with them. Another buddy of mine, I have just become part of their families,” Gaal said of one of the volunteer surf leaders with Wounded Warriors Surf Therapy here.
Gaal said his wife has been a lifesaver. “When I had come back in 2015, I had stopped surfing; I had stopped working out. I stopped doing all those things that were big staples to why I was the way I was before. But she knew I wasn’t doing the things I enjoyed. I had pushed those things away,” he said. “She really encouraged me to get back into surfing again. I’m glad she did.”
Gaal said the first time he came to surf, he said he just sat and talked to Bishop on the beach about sports but came back the next week and decided to get into the water and try it out for the first time. Now, he enjoys it and encourages others to try it out.
“I want people to understand that the ocean is the biggest healing property there is. There’s no medication that the ocean can’t provide,” Gaal said. “Once you’re in the water and you’re hearing the water crush around you, it’s something that provides you some sort of relief that you can’t understand until you’re in there.”
He added, “A lot of people, when they first come through, they don’t want to get in because they’re unsure of the ocean. I let them know, you don’t have to get in but I want you to know the properties the ocean provides you. More times than not, they listen. I’m here to show them what the human body is capable of. I love surfing big waves.”
While Gaal said he enjoys getting out in the ocean, the surfing clinic also provides him a sense of camaraderie and family he enjoyed while serving in the military. “It’s not just about gaining independence and going out and surfing,” he said. “It’s about reintegrating and transitioning. This is my family I have through surfing. We surf together; we go to each other’s houses and have lunch. I enjoy being in their presence and the negativity level isn’t there. They’re all positive influences.”
Gaal said surfing has been the best prescription for his psychological and physical recovery, particularly pain recovery. “You don’t have to take any medication to do this,” he said. “You just have to be willing to learn. This has been the most peaceful time of my recovery, not just for the physical aspect but for the reintegration. I’m truly blessed that there’s a clinic like this.”
(Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDoDNews)