At first blush, life looks pretty “sweet” for Aaron Hale: A decorated military career, a stunning wife, three perfect children and a thriving chocolate business not far from the sugar-white sands of the Gulf of Mexico. But, listen to his story of tragedy to triumph and you’ll be awed — and probably humbled — by his story.
“I joined the military kind of by accident. I went to college and I wasn’t ready, I wasted my tuition on alcohol and after those freshmen semesters, I was really just spinning my wheels,” Hale said. ” I decided I needed to learn those core values of discipline, get some ambition for some goals and get set on the right path. The military was, and is, all about discipline, honor, training, all of those virtues I was sorely lacking.
“I also decided I wanted to be a chef. I’d always loved cooking, ever since I could reach over the counter, but I needed to earn some more tuition money and the military, it just had all the answers.”
Hale became a cook in the Navy, capitalizing on their on-the-job training, while cooking for three-star admirals and seeing much of the Mediterranean.
“Hardship duty it was not,” Hale said.
By 2004, the United States was waging battles on fronts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving Hale feeling very disconnected as he watched wars play out on CNN.
“I felt pulled toward something a little more direct. In the few short years I was in the Navy, I’d gotten those skills, the values, those virtues and I was growing as a person,” he said. “And, it became less about me and more about my service, but I felt this draw toward going closer to the fight.”
Hale volunteered for a Provincial Reconstruction Team, which would set up around Afghanistan to do things like build schools, dig wells and help train local police. That experience introduced him to some EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) technicians, where he learned the technical and physical aspects of their job as well as the tight-knit brotherhood they enjoyed.
“These are the people running into danger when everyone else is running out,” he said.
While Hale mulled a career change, the Navy put the kibosh on it. He was, after all, a chef and not at all qualified for the role. As his contract was coming to a close, Hale made the decision to leave the Navy and paid a visit to an Army recruiter.
“I just handed him my service jacket and said, ‘I want to go EOD,'” Hale remembered. “He looked at my scores and my record and just kind of lifted an eyebrow at going into bomb squad.”
Hale made the transition and maintained his rank, and began training, part of which brought him to Eglin Air Force Base. He deployed to Afghanistan twice, with the second outing putting him right in the midst of the action. A two-week R&R to the States allowed him to see his oldest son turn one and celebrate Thanksgiving. He calls that trip the “best last page in the photo album.”
Upon his return to Afghanistan, everything changed. While diffusing and dismantling one IED to render it safe, a second IED detonated that sent Hale flying.
“I landed on my knees and elbows. I was still conscious. I don’t know how lucid I was,” he said. “I was still awake but I couldn’t see. It’s like the lights had gone out.”
Initially, Hale said he thought his helmet had been pushed over his face. He reached up to adjust it, only to discover the helmet was gone.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Oh no, this is bad,’ followed by, ‘The Army’s going to want that back,'” Hale said, referencing his missing helmet.
Within 14 minutes of the explosion, Hale was in the air headed back to the airfield. Within 48 hours, he was en route to Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland.
“That’s when they told me I would never see again. One eye was gone, one eye was damaged, and my skull was cracked in multiple places,” Hale said. “I was actually leaking spinal fluid right out of my nose.”
The days that followed were dark ones. He sat in his bed in the dark and his demons, as he called them, the “what ifs” and “why mes” started creeping in. His support system, including his mom, who he calls an “eternal optimist,” rallied around him.
“I was in a military hospital, in this unit full of warriors going through their own personal battles. People with traumatic brain injuries, burns, loss of limbs, and I just kept thinking of my team, no matter how big the team is, the military … that’s my family,” he said.
In that moment, Hale realized his life didn’t belong to him and that he needed to do his best for all of them.
“I decided if I was going to be blind for the rest of my life, I’d be the best darn blind guy I could be,” Hale offered.
The rehabilitation period that followed included learning how to be blind, being taught how to use a cane, figuring out accessibility devices. Hale started researching how to do the things he still wanted to do; among them, how to get outside and how to be fit. He reached out to Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mount Everest, and went mountain climbing with him. He introduced himself to Lonnie Bedwell, the first blind person to kayak the entire Grand Canyon, and kayaked the Yellowstone River with him. He registered for four marathons and a 10-mile race, all in the span of four months.
It was also around this time he reconnected with a childhood friend (now his wife), McKayla, and a romance began to bloom.
“I was on the phone with her, just walking in the door, and I was feeling off, dizzy,” said Hale, who had returned home from a speaking engagement. “I thought maybe I was fatigued and I told her, ‘I’m going to lie down and take a nap and I’ll call you after.'”
When he woke, he said he had the most excruciating pain ever in his head, likening it to someone pouring acid into his skull. He dialed 911.
“I told the operator, ‘Ma’am, I’ve never felt pain like this in my life …and I’ve literally been blown up before,” Hale remembered.
He was only a mile or so from Sacred Heart, where he soon discovered he’d contracted bacterial meningitis. Doctors feared he might not survive.
“When I finally came out of my fog, my hearing was fuzzy. It was almost like my ears were clogged,” he said. “And, that’s when the doctor said I had meningitis and it was either the bacteria or the heavy doses of antibiotics that were stealing what hearing I had left that the bomb blast hadn’t taken.”
Four years after mastering being blind, Hale was now also completely deaf.
“It was like getting punched in the gut — again,” he remembered. “There was hope of getting at least some of my hearing back with a cochlear implant but it would be over six months before I’d hear another human voice again. My entire world ended right at my fingertips.”
But, if you haven’t learned by now, there’s not a lot that keeps Hale down. Within a year, he ran a comeback marathon. By Thanksgiving, he was back in the kitchen.
“I started making cakes and pies and cookies and just throwing them in the freezer, and batch after batch of fudge, changing some of the ingredients each time,” he said. “And, McKayla, my wife, noticed two things. One, she saw something she hadn’t seen in six months, which was a smile on my face. And, two, she noticed the fudge was really piling up.”
As McKayla snuck Hale’s fudge out of the house to give away to friends and neighbors, people started coming back and saying, “Hey, we’ve got a birthday party or a baby shower coming up and I’d buy some more of that fudge from you.”
Never one to let grass grow under his feet, Hale turned his therapeutic fudge into a business.
“I love creating something and giving it to someone else and just knowing they’re pleased,” Hale said.
Today, Hale is the co-founder of EOD Confections (short for Extra Ordinary Delights this time) based in Santa Rosa Beach, where he makes fudge, caramels, turtles, pies and more. His new “weapons” include a Bluetooth thermometer that connects to his phone, his phone of course, and even an app with volunteers who can use his camera to help with everything from reading labels to setting the temperature on a touchscreen display.
Hale credits McKayla and the rest of his family with support through it all, from lying in a hospital bed to laying it on the line as an entrepreneur.
“It starts with a decision about mindset and perspective,” Hale said. “I have such a great life.”
To learn more about Hale or place an order, visit eodfudge.com.