DEFYING THE ODDS: ONE VETERAN'S COURAGEOUS STORY TOLD
By: Aaron Hale
I just ran the Seaside Half Marathon and, though I’ve run full and ultra distances before, I can’t remember a better experience! This is for a few reasons but topping the list is the fact that I’m even here to run it at all. In 2011 I was blown up, then, in 2015 I nearly died again when I contracted bacterial meningitis. The bomb took my eyesight and the bug took my hearing. And, you know what? I couldn’t be happier. It’s true! I’m blind and nearly deaf except for the use of a cochlear implant in my left ear, but I’m living the dream. It has been a hard road but I’m still running it.
I can’t attribute any one thing to the outlook I have on life, or rather, the factors that have gotten me to the place I am today. My military training, a loving and supportive family, each trial and hardship along the way that has molded me into the person I am, the community in which I live, have all shaped the outcome, and in large part, my view of what a successful and thriving life looks like. I try every day to respect, honor, and give thanks for each factor. So, when the opportunity to run a half marathon to help raise money for a great school in my own neighborhood arose, I jumped at the chance to do it!
I’m a former Navy cook that switched careers to Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). On my first deployment to Afghanistan I met some of these battlefield first responders charged with getting to the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and Unexploded Ordnance (UXOs) before they got to our troops. When I returned from that deployment I changed uniforms and career fields, and have never regretted the decision.
By 2011 I was a Staff Sergeant in the Army and running an EOD team on my way back to Afghanistan. This would be my third deployment and, unfortunately, my last. I was wrapping up work on an IED that we already had dismantled when a secondary IED that hadn’t yet been detected detonated nearby. Just days prior I was home to be present for my son’s first birthday and Thanksgiving with the family. It was a great last entry in the mental photo album!
The blast took both my eyes, blew out both my eardrums, scarred and burnt my face, and cracked my skull. Thank goodness we Hales are remarkably hard headed!
Within 48 hours I was transported to Walter Reed Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. The doctors patched me up the best they could but were unable to save my eyesight.
The reality of my new situation threatened to envelop me like the darkness that now surrounded me. What lit the way was the combination of the aforementioned things to: my family by my side, a community that continuously came to my aid, and my military training that reminded me quitting was not an option. If I was going to be blind for the rest of my life, I was going to be the best darned blind guy I could be. By taking responsibility for my situation I was in control of my life. There was nothing I could do about the blindness, but I was still in charge of how I would respond.
When the doctors at Walter Reed could do nothing more for me, I moved onto the VA hospital in Augusta, Georgia where I attended training at the Blind Rehabilitation Center. I also sought out others living with disabilities who were finding success in their lives. I was amazed to learn about determined individuals such as: Erik Weihenmayer, who became the first blind person to climb Mount Everest, Ivan Castro, who stayed on as an active duty Ranger and ran marathons after going blind, and Lonnie Bedwell, who is the first blind person to kayak the Grand Canyon.
These men and others were finding ways to lead exceptional lives. I needed to figure out how!
I climbed a mountain with Erik, went kayaking with Lonnie, and Ivan inspired me to sign up for my first marathon. In fact, I registered for four marathons in four months before having run anything bigger than a 10k. By 2015 I had climbed a mountain in Peru, kayaked parts of the Yellowstone river, and had run the Boston Marathon. Without a doubt it was my community that gave me the strength and courage to attempt things I hadn’t even considered possible when I had my eyesight. My military community, the community of blind people, and my geographic community all lifted me up to greater accomplishments, and I was resolute in giving back what I could to all of them. I did so in the best way I knew how. I began speaking and telling my story. The message was clear. You can find limitless success through struggle, not despite it. Everything you want in life is on the far side of hard work.
In the Summer of 2015 tragedy struck once more, when returning from a speaking event I was hit with dizziness and fatigue unusual to me, despite my active lifestyle. I was on the phone with McKayla, a childhood friend whom I’d recently reconnected with. Living in California, I’d convinced her to take a vacation here to Florida which became our week long first date. Only days after she’d returned home, I’d found myself back in the hospital. The dizziness and fatigue soon became an indescribable pain in my head. I’d contracted bacterial meningitis which over the next few days would nearly killed me.
My family was once again by my hospital bedside, as was McKayla. I would win the battle over the meningitis, but before the fight was over, either the bacteria or the heavy doses of antibiotics used to keep me alive would steal what was left of my hearing the bomb hadn't taken.
I was once again plunged into a very isolated and lonely place.
Without my eyesight, my hearing, or new input from the outside world, it was like being trapped in my own body. The meningitis had also stolen my inner ear sense of balance which left me wheelchair bound for weeks. Thank goodness for the support of my family, McKayla, and the 32 metric tons of lasagna and baked ziti our friends and neighbors brought by.
For four years I've been preaching about triumph over hardship. Now, the powers that be were saying, “Put your money where your mouth is. Prove it!” So, I did what anyone in my situation would do… I started the chocolate company. Well, it's not as simple as that. First, I had to learn how to communicate with the outside world. It would be over six months before my cochlear implant would allow me to hear again. McKayla, my angel, began drawing each letter of every word she needed to say to me onto the palm of my hand. That was my only form of input for half a year! I couldn't walk without the use of the same trekking poles I once used to climb mountains, I got on my treadmill and began to walk. McKayla, by the way, never went back to her home and job in California. She stayed and became a permanent fixture in our lives. In hindsight, there are far easier ways to get a second date but.. whatever. She’s here and that’s what matters.
Thanksgiving was soon approaching and since I couldn't travel, we invited friends and family to our home for a huge holiday feast. Even without seeing or hearing I found that I could still cook. One of my first passions became my therapy as I immersed myself in Thanksgiving preparations. The desserts were begun weeks in advance until McKayla began to notice two things… first, she noticed something in me she hadn't seen in months. That was a smile. Second, she noticed that the fudge was beginning to pile up! I was having so much fun making batch after batch that I'd made more for my family than they could handle in one sitting. She started giving some away to friends and neighbors. Some of whom came back to ask if they could buy more, and the idea for a business was born.
The walking on the treadmill became like jogging and, eventually, I was running again. Almost a year after the meningitis had nearly killed me, I was running marathons once more.
Today, McKayla and I are married, raising three boys, including infant twins… and I thought defusing bombs was scary! Try changing poopie diapers without looking. I'm training for my first 100 mile ultra marathon.
We are also committed to giving back to a community that has given us so much. McKayla and I were honored to mentor students from the Seaside Neighborhood School last October. I have shared our story of resilience to a number of the local schools. It is hard to believe that I’ve lived in Santa Rosa Beach for nearly eight years and this was my first Seaside Half! What better way is there to stay healthy, get out with your neighbors and do some good for our kids? Our friend, Sam Brasfield, the commander of the Navy dive school in Panama City, ran alongside me to guide me as my son, Cameron, ran the 5K, and McKayla worked with other volunteers to make sure the race went off without a hitch. So many friends and neighbors came out to enjoy the perfect weather and celebrate the community. I’m pretty sure I would’ve run the race all over again for another pass at the fabulous post-race refreshments! Nothing like an IPA with your shrimp and grits after running 13.1 miles.
The event was the truest exemplification of what community means. Friends and neighbors came from near and far to support our school, promote health and fitness, and strengthen the bonds that tie each other together. The Hale family’s roots grew a little deeper into the sandy soil of Santa Rosa Beach this day and I can’t wait to do it all again for next year’s Seaside School Half Marathon.