Meet The Couples
Samantha Yovandich & Chris Van Etten| 4.1.17 | Paradise Falls
Samantha and Chris met while he was home visiting family in Illinois. She was working at a local gym as a personal trainer and he needed to get a workout in. Seeing him from afar- Samantha told her co-worker that they guy doing pull-ups was going to be her boyfriend one day and she was right. Samantha and Chris are near and dear to our hearts. Chris is a war veteran who served his country proudly and gave more than most will ever have to. In an accident involving an IED, Chris lost both of his legs and was left a parapleghic. (Leah Marie Photography)
Samantha and Chris were referred to the founders of the Vows for Vets programs, Cathie and Al Ransom, by the Balboa Veterans hospital. As Samantha began to tell their love story and Chris dive into his experiences over seas, Cathie and Al knew that they were the ones! The couple was chosen on the spot. Samantha and Chris were overwhelmed with emotions, which in turn, had the entire team in tears! Paradise Falls will be hosting their special day on April 1st, 2017 and the team is dedicated to making it a wedding to remember! Check out the blog for more updates!
Sgt. Toran & Lisa Gaal | 3.6.16 | Paradise Falls
Newlyweds Lisa and Toran Gaal both laughed when asked if romantic sparks flew when they first met.
“No!” they responded in unison.
Because she was researching her book, “After,” about the recovery of severely wounded veterans, Lisa went to Warrior Foundation-Freedom Station, which provides temporary lodging for recuperating troops. She was waiting at the gate and a miscommunication resulted in Toran, a Freedom Station resident at the time, having to go to the gate a second time to let her in. She picked up a not-so-friendly vibe from him.
Toran, a double amputee and veteran of both Iraqi and Afghan wars, said there was reason for that. “It was the summer of 2014 and I was still extremely angry,” he said. “I wasn’t very friendly to anyone.”
Three years earlier, Toran was serving as an infantry rifleman in Afghanistan with the 1st Marine Division based out of Camp Pendleton, on his third tour of duty. Severely injured by an improvised explosive device, he lost his right leg at the hip and his left leg above the knee. Toran also broke his pelvis and fractured his skull.
Things changed for the two when they met as Lisa arrived to interview Toran for her book. They consider that day — followed by dinner — the actual beginning of their relationship.
“From the second she walked in, I was instantly attracted to her,” Toran recalled. “How she carried herself really made me feel this was the person. Her smile put me at ease and made more comfortable about doing the interview.”
Lisa and Toran were married on March 6 at Paradise Falls in Oceanside, a private wedding and event estate. Its owners, Col. Al and Cathie Ransom, host at least one Wounded Warrior wedding annually.
The Ransoms, Wounded Warriors and vendors who donate their services make free dream weddings possible. The Gaals were personally selected by the Ransoms, with the help of Balboa Naval Hospital.
“Most people don’t have that kind of wedding — and even fewer are gifted with it,” Lisa said, adding that they had 223 guests. “It was neat to see so many people who were instrumental to Toran’s recovery at the wedding.”
“We were given a night so magical. We’ll never, ever forget it. Huge thanks go out to Col. Ransom, Cathie and all the vendors.”
Toran’s proposal to Lisa was an elaborate surprise, involving a car service, champagne and roses on her favorite beach spot. On the day of the wedding, Lisa responded with a surprise for Toran, right before they danced to their special song. To perform the Kenny Chesney hit “You Save Me,” local country singer Greg White Jr. and his band were joined by Grammy-winning songwriter Brett James, who wrote “You Save Me.”
Lisa had emailed James about the wedding and the country singer flew in from Nashville, on his own dime.
“I was surprised, and grateful,” Toran said.
Both Lisa and Toran are well-known among San Diego’s wounded-veterans community.
Written under her pseudonym, RJ Belle, Lisa’s book, “After,” was just released on Amazon. The print version will be available in late March. A fiction writer, the author tackled nonfiction to present eight true stories of local veterans, including Toran, recovering from grievous injuries.
In 2014, Toran rode a hand-propelled, recumbent bicycle to 51 cities, starting in Escondido and ending in Arlington, Va. His 4,000-mile “Ride Across America” earned nearly $50,000 for the Semper Fi Fund, which provides support to ill and injured military personnel.
“Lisa was the driving force who got me to do it,” Toran said. “In the big picture, the amount of money raised wasn’t important; it was the lives we were able to touch and people we helped inspire. She’s a huge piece to how it happened.”
The couple lives in Escondido with daughter Belle, 10, whom Lisa adopted from Guatemala nine years ago. Toran, who was adopted from India as a young child, considers Belle and her adult siblings his own. Toran, Lisa and Belle will move to Valley Center, when their specially adapted house is ready. It’s being built by the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops.
For Toran, the most memorable moment of the day was at the beginning of the ceremony.
“I was just blown away by how beautiful she was — a smile from ear to ear,” he recalled.
For Lisa, there were two special moments. One was her dad walking her down the aisle.
“And seeing Toran — I didn’t think it would affect me the way it did,” she said. “I had to think of other things to stop crying.”
Quote of Note: “We had a large contingent of law enforcement and military at the wedding. A lot of these guys had seen me in my darkest days,” Toran said. “For them — and my family — to see where I’ve come from when I was injured was important to me. The wedding was super formal. For my groom guys, I had three Marines, the Navy corpsman who saved my life, an Escondido police officer and our college son, who wore a tuxedo. We had a large array of uniforms up there.”
Retired Marine Sergeant Kaleb & Sydney Weakley | 3.4.16 | Los Willows
We are honored to announce the Wounded Warrior that has been chosen to have the wedding of their dreams at Los Willows Wedding Estate. Retired Marine Sergeant Kaleb Weakley was wounded in Afghanistan in February 2012. He took multiple gunshot wounds to his upper and lower extremities and spent over two years in a medical facility learning how to walk again .
Both Kaleb and his fiancé, Sydney Simonds, are truly inspirational and we cannot wait to see them say their “I Do’s” in March 2016 at Los Willows in Fallbrook, California. The love that Kaleb has for is soon-to-be wife, Sydney is so touching. Please take a moment to get to know Kaleb Weakley and, hopefully, donate any amount you can to say “Thank You” to Kaleb for his service and sacrifice.
Here is their Love Story as told by Kaleb Weakley. “We first met in May of 2013 at a USO Gala in San Diego, Sydney’s mom is also a Wounded Warrior at Balboa Naval Hospital and she introduced us at the USO Gala. I remember thinking how beautiful she looked and I wanted to get to know her better. Several months later, in September of 2013, we met again at a Wounded Warrior event at Del Mar Horse Track. Her mom and I convinced her to hang out with me that night. Then one week later I asked her on a formal date. We went out for sushi and then took my jeep to the drive in for a double feature (We’re the Millers & Kick-Ass 2). After a few weeks of dating I asked Sydney to accompany me to Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon, where, during our camping trip, I asked her to be my girlfriend and she said yes! We’ve been together ever since. When I was injured in February of 2012, I was at the point where I felt like everything I knew was over and I would be a hopeless cripple for life but, after meeting Sydney, she looked at me as every other person and still to this day doesn’t let me use my injuries as an excuse; I am always active and on-the-go and it’s all because of her. She gave me hope and showed me that I am equal to, if not better physically, than any able bodied person. I love her forever and always will.”
To read about Kaleb’s journey, visit the Unstoppable Heroes.
Aiyanna & Jorge Ortiz | 2.14.14 | Los Willows
Aiyanna Coleman and Jorge Ortiz will stamp an official seal on their relationship today with a fairy-tale wedding at the Los Willows Estate in Fallbrook.
But unlike many other couples getting married on Valentine’s Day, Coleman and Ortiz haven’t had a fairy-tale life or romance. They found each other 2-1/2 ago through the shared trauma of their combat experiences in the Middle East.
Coleman, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, is a longtime volunteer massage therapist in the combat casualty ward at Naval Medical Center San Diego. In spring 2012, she was assigned a new patient, Ortiz, a Marine who lost both legs and several of his fingers to an IED explosion in Afghanistan.
“She was hurting me during my massage so I started talking to her and we just sort of hit it off,” said Ortiz, now 23.
The adventurous Otay Mesa couple share a love for working out, animals and tattoos. But their strongest connective tissue is their military service and war memories.
“We’re very much alike,” said Coleman, 32, a San Diego native. “There’s an understanding and a balance. I can relate to what he’s gone through and we just get along.”
Ortiz was 17 and looking for a way out of Fresno when he joined the Marine Corps six years ago. A year into his enlistment, the young lance corporal was assigned to an infantry battalion in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Around 9 a.m. on Jan. 15, 2011, his patrol raided a booby-trapped compound with a large cache of weapons and explosives. When he stepped into a room to photograph the cache, he stepped on a hidden bomb.
“I heard the boom and then I was lying there in a crater with dust everywhere and the voices of people starting to come in slowly,” he said. “I blacked out for a second and when I woke up I could see my legs were gone and the bones were protruding … At first I thought ‘how the hell did this happen to me?’ But somebody was going to get hit that day and fortunately I was the only one injured, so it wasn’t a bad day.”
Ortiz lost both of his legs above the knees, four fingers on his left hand and half of his right thumb and he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He spent most of the next year moving from one hospital to another enduring surgery after surgery, bouts of depression and excruciating pain. Just days after he transferred to the Navy hospital (known as Balboa), he met Coleman.
She began volunteering at Balboa in April 2008 as a form of therapy for her PTSD symptoms. The Montgomery High School graduate served in Iraq for 15 months in 2006 and 2007, doing search and raid missions with an infantry unit. The trauma of the experience was long-lasting.
“There were significant events like being shot at, being close to explosions and having my friends die,” she said.
Before she left the Army in December 2007 and joined the Naval Reserves, she started working toward her goal of becoming a physical therapist. To earn observation hours, she volunteered as a massage therapist in Balboa’s combat casualty unit. She found the work as helpful to her as it was to her patients.
“I was around people who had experienced the same things I had,” she said. “When you come out of the military, it’s hard to assimilate with the civilian population because it’s hard for them to relate to what you’ve gone through.”
No initial sparks flew when the couple first met. Ortiz was extremely quiet and Coleman kept a professional distance. There was also a 9-year age gap. When Ortiz was discharged from the hospital, they lost touch for a few months until they exchanged phone numbers through a friend. Romance finally bloomed when they agreed to go to Las Vegas in November 2012 to celebrate their birthdays with her friends. The minute they arrived in Vegas, Ortiz reached out and grabbed Coleman’s hand. Along on that Vegas trip was Raschelle Gudbranson, Coleman’s best friend since eighth grade and her maid of honor in today’s wedding.
“I was a witness to their relationship from the beginning,” Gudbranson said. “They seemed to hit it off really well right off the bat and they were good for each other. His disability was never really a crazy concern. It was mentioned, but you know it is what it is when you fall in love.”
Because of her experiences working with amputees for six years before meeting Ortiz, Coleman said she knew instinctively how to care for him and his injuries without being smothering.
“Females are natural nurturers and we want to be mothering with these (traumatic injury survivors) but that can be the worst thing,” she said. “They need to learn to function on their own and we need to learn the difference between empathy and sympathy. They want to feel like a whole, capable functional person. They may be combat survivors but they still want to be providers and do things for a woman.”
Ortiz, who retired from the Marine Corps in August 2012, said his physical injuries have been harder to overcome than his psychological wounds.
“Some guys lose their confidence when this happens but my confidence went up higher. It isn’t my nature to feel self-pity because of my injuries. I’m not one of those to drown in my sorrows. I just like to keep a positive attitude,” he said.
The couple share a small home south of Palm Avenue with four cats and a dog, a 5-year-old Lab mix named Shiloh who will be a ring bearer in today’s ceremony. Coleman hopes to finish her recreational therapy degree next year and Ortiz said he’d like to work either at a firearms store or at a gym as a fitness trainer.
A year ago today, he popped the question. He wanted to get down on one knee to propose, but his prosthetic legs kept falling off, so instead he gave her an engagement ring in their car. When Coleman later shared the news with Marla Knox, her supervisor at Balboa, Knox got an idea.
Over the past two years, Knox has consulted with Fallbrook residents Al and Cathie Ransom, who have provided all-expense-paid weddings to two wounded warriors and their brides at their Los Willows Estate wedding center. The Ransoms and Knox agreed that Ortiz and Coleman were prime candidates for special treatment.
“Jorge has been through a tremendous amount of trauma, physical and invisible, and (Aiyanna’s) a great woman with a lot of goals,” said Knox, a therapeutic recreational therapist. “I love that she’s donated her time to help a lot of wounded and injured with pain and stress relief, so it’s good when people want to give back to them.”
Al Ransom is a retired Marine colonel and he and his wife have been big supporters of wounded warrior charities. The Ransoms and all of their vendors (caterer, photographer, florist, videographer, cake maker) have donated more than $35,000 in services for today’s ceremony. They’re also raising money for the couple’s dream honeymoon in Tahiti, which Coleman said she hopes they can take sometime later this year or in 2016.
Ortiz is a man of few words and he likes keeping his emotions in check. Though he can talk at length about the explosion that took his legs, it’s harder for him to share what he loves most about his fiancee. After some quiet reflection, he finally answers.
“We have similar characteristics and she’s my equal in every way,” he said. “When we argue, there’s no winning against her because we’re both so stubborn. I guess I’d say she’s the girl version of me.”
Kragen, Pam. “Valentine’s Day Wedding for Wounded Warrior.” Sandiegouniontribune.com. San Diego Union Tribune, 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.
Madison & Cameron West | 10.12.13 | Los Willows
Madison and Cameron’s love story, in Madison’s own words…..Cameron and I met about one week after he came to California. He is originally from Georgia and had been stationed on the East Coast prior. He arrived to Camp Pendleton in October 2009 as an Infantry Officer in the Marine Corps. I was born and raised in Huntington Beach, California with most of my family living in Huntington Beach and San Clemente. When Cameron moved to California, he moved into a small apartment near the beach in San Clemente. That’s where I met him. It was on October 22nd, 2009. I will never forget that day. I remember exactly what he was wearing and how bright blue his eyes were. We arranged to go to the beach with a couple friends. I remember how attentive he was to everything I was saying. I remember thinking that his manners were unlike what I was familiar with in Southern California. The most memorable part of that day was when it was time for me to leave. He picked up my towel, shook the sand out, and folded it for me. I never met anyone in California who had offered to do that for me.
Over the next year, Cameron trained his platoon for a deployment in Afghanistan scheduled for September, 2010. He was gone for three month long training’s in Bridgeport, California, 29 Palms, and Korea. We continued to casually date until I relocated to Texas in August, 2010 where I would spend the next year working. Cameron was a very dedicated Marine and always knew he did not want to deploy with someone waiting for him back home. The idea of him deploying was extremely difficult for me. While I was living in San Antonio, we spoke the day before he deployed and the day he deployed. That would be the last time I would talk to him for several months.
On October 15, 2010, Cameron was injured by an IED blast in Sangin, Afghanistan. He was leading his platoon on a foot patrol. I later found out about the event from his sister, who was sending out updating emails. Cameron was flown to Germany for emergency medical treatment and then to Bethesda, MD for five weeks where he would receive inpatient care. I continued to live in Texas throughout this time. Cameron continued his rehab down San Diego after leaving Bethesda. We continued to talk on the phone while he spent his time focusing on getting strong.
In June, 2011, I decided to move back to California to pursue my dream of becoming a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. On my drive half way across the country from Texas to California, I gave Cameron a call and asked if he would like to get together when I got back. We got lunch together the day after I arrived in California and the rest is history. We spend most of our time watching country western movies, eating sushi, and enjoying our precious time together. We both know how special and important this time is and will never take it for granted because we both understand how quickly things can change.
We were engaged February 25th, 2013 while visiting friends in Mammoth. We went for a ride on the Gondolas and Cameron asked me, “How would you like to spend the rest of your life with this old, banged up Marine?” Of course I said yes! Several weeks later, we were asked by Colonel Ransom and his wife if we would like to get married that their wedding venue, Los Willows. We were thrilled with the idea and are so excited about getting married on October 12th, 2013.
Last week Team Shadowcatcher hit the beach in Cardiff with this super couple to get to know them a bit better and start the photographic journey of their story… LOVE these two!
Debbie & Josue Barron | 1.15.12 | Los Willows
Fifteen months after losing a leg and eye to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Josue Barron will walk down the aisle and marry the woman he met a few months before heading to war.
Barron and Debbie Salazar plan to wed before dozens of friendsand family Jan. 15 in a fantasy wedding package valued at close to$50,000 —- provided free by Fallbrook’s Los Willows Private Wedding and Event Estate and several vendors.
“It means a lot,” Salazar said last week. “It’s especially touching, given everything that’s happened.”
Barron, a Los Angeles native, was a rifleman with Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which had 25 of its men killed in Afghanistan last year.
More than 140 were wounded during the regiment’s seven-month assignment in the deadly Sangin district of Helmand province. Like Barron, many of the injured became amputees.
Barron was hurt in late October 2010, just days into his first combat deployment, when he went to help a fellow Marine who had fallen in a canal while his unit was on foot patrol. That’s when the bomb —- a type the military calls an improvised explosive device, or IED —- detonated.
“As I was pulling him (the Marine) up, the IED blew up,” Barron, 22, said. “He lost both of his legs and a couple of fingers, and I lost my left leg and my left eye.”
Both Marines were flown to a hospital at Camp Leatherneck and then on to Germany and Bethesda Naval Medical Center, where Barron spent about a month before being transferred in December 2010 to Naval Medical Center San Diego.
He and Salazar had married in a quick courthouse ceremony before Barron deployed, but had vowed to family and friends that they would have a more traditional wedding after he returned from Afghanistan.
“Our honeymoon was at the hospital in Bethesda,” Salazar said.
When the owners of Los Willows, retired Marine Col. Al Ransom and his wife, Cathie, learned of the couple’s story, they and several of their regular vendors decided to provide the dream wedding.
“There isn’t enough we can do for these young troops that put their lives on the line,” Cathie Ransom said. “What is truly inspiring is how these magnificent wounded warriors have stood and faced their injuries.”
In September, Barron and Lt. Cameron West, a platoon leader from the same battalion who also lost a leg in a roadside bombing, arranged a lunch at Los Willows with Salazar.
“She said it would be amazing if they could get married there,” West recalled of that gathering.
A few minutes later, Barron presented Salazar with flowers and proposed again. She readily accepted and learned the wedding would take place at Los Willows.
West —- whose path to recovery was featured in the North County Times in February2011 —- was one of the first to greet Barron when he arrived atNaval Medical Center San Diego.
The two didn’t know each other, but Barron had served in the platoon led by one of West’s best friends, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed in fighting in Afghanistan in November 2010.
“I went and saw him as soon as I could get in the wheelchair and get to his room,” West recalled. “He was pretty banged up, and we went through a lot of rehab together, and that kindled a pretty good friendship. He’s an awesome guy.”
In October, the two competed as hand cyclists in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. In a couple of weeks, West will serve as Barron’s best man.
Like West, Barron continues to receive treatment for his injuries as an outpatient.
“I’m doing pretty good,” Barron said. “I’m really looking forward to the wedding, and we’re going to have a lot of other wounded warriors there as well as some of our therapists.”
Salazar said the wedding, food, drink, music, photography and other amenities —- provided by Los Willows, Ranch Event caterers, Pro Sound DJ’s, Shadowcatcher Imagery, Blooming Grace Floral, Black Tie Productions, Marqui Artistry and My Picture Booth —- are far beyond what she had envisioned.
“I wasn’t expecting this at all,” Salazar said. “It’s even more special, because for a while we didn’t know if he would be able to overcome his depression, which he has, and if we would live a normal life again.”
There’s something else she has long wanted, Salazar said.
“Having him see me in a white wedding dress has always been my dream.”
Mlwalker@nctimes.com, MARK WALKER. “REGION: Fantasy Wedding Set for Injured Marine and His Bride.” Sandiegouniontribune.com. San Diego Union Tribune, 03 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.