Aaron Hale knew his story could have turned out so much worse.
So did Robert Gilbert Sr.
On Saturday afternoon, Gilbert drove his motorcycle with other bikers as part of an escort of more than a dozen police, highway patrol and sheriff’s cruisers to accompany Hale back home to his alma mater, Revere High School.
Unlike similar events in recent years when police with sirens ushered home a military member who had been killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan, this escort was full of joy.
When Gilbert’s son, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Robert Gilbert II, 28, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, police escorted his flag-draped casket through Richfield.
On Saturday, Gilbert was one of the first to welcome Hale, 34, who was blinded in a roadside bombing one year ago Saturday, at an uplifting homecoming ceremony.
“We have to do this for each and every one when they come back,” said Gilbert, 58, a retired Richfield police officer.
“Fortunately, this gentleman is with us.”
Army Staff Sgt. Hale, his wife, Kelly, and their four children, were given a hero’s welcome at the high school as nearly 700 people filled the auditorium and gave a standing ovation when Hale walked to the stage to speak.
“It is unreal, amazing, terrific,” Hale said of the celebration. “It is so humbling.”
Hale, a 1996 Revere High School graduate, attended Bowling Green State University. He served in the Navy from 1999 to 2007 as a cook and then joined the Army and became an Explosive Ordnance Disposal soldier, an expert in disarming bombs.
He served a brief tour in Iraq with the Army before being deployed to Afghanistan.
Blinded in bombing
Hale was blinded on a mission to disarm an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. As Hale approached to disarm the bomb, it detonated, breaking bones throughout his face and blinding him permanently.
He has undergone more than 20 surgeries since the explosion.
Kelly Hale has lived through her own ordeal this year. In addition to what happened to her husband, she was diagnosed with and has been undergoing treatment for malignant melanoma.
The couple believes that Aaron’s wounds led to the discovery of his wife’s cancer.
They were staying at the Fisher House while he was being treated at a Veterans Affairs facility in Augusta, Ga., when a nurse spotted a lesion on her collarbone and told her she needed to have it looked at immediately.
She underwent surgery that day.
Celebrating ‘Alive Day’
In military circles, the day someone survives a near-death encounter is called his or her “Alive Day,” and Hale said he was happy to celebrate the anniversary of his Alive Day on Saturday with hometown people at the high school where he played football and lacrosse.
Before the ceremony, as police officers gathered in front of Revere, a Fairlawn police officer passed out and fell to the ground.
With police and some paramedics included in the group, work began immediately to resuscitate the officer.
Dr. Sonny Bare, an emergency room doctor for Summa Health System who helped organize the event for his friend Hale, attended to the officer, who began breathing on his own after he was defibrillated twice and then transported to Akron General Medical Center.
Bare said the life-saving incident was symbolic on a day when a hero was given a hometown thank you.
“I feel this gentleman is alive today because of Aaron because none of us would have been here” if Aaron hadn’t been wounded a year earlier, he said. The identity of the police officer was not known.
While others were calling Hale a hero, Hale called out his friend, Bare, as a hero, too.
“What a guy,” Hale said. “Duty called.”
Staff Sgt. Hale, who is teaching Explosive Ordnance Disposal to soldiers at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, is waiting to learn whether he will be medically retired from the Army.
A group called Building Homes for Heroes is putting on the finishing touches to a home the Hale family is being given in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.
Students and faculty members in the Revere school district have collected nearly $3,700 for the Hale family, and Hillcrest Elementary PTA has adopted the family for Christmas and will send gifts to them in Florida.
Gunnery Sgt. Gilbert’s father said it was great to shake Hale’s hand and welcome him home.
“It’s a blessing he is going to be with his family and he will have more time with them,” Gilbert said.
During the program, taps was sounded and dedicated to Gunnery Sgt. Gilbert. A group of 18 Hillcrest first-graders sang several songs, including one titled We Are Grateful.
The most grateful people in the auditorium Saturday were Aaron and Kelly Hale and their four children.
“I tell people how lucky I really am,” Hale said. “The incident was really terrible, but it could have been so much worse.”
Asked if he ever feels like the character George Bailey, played by James Stewart in the Christmas holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Hale said he does indeed.
“Today is a perfect example of how wonderful my life is,” Hale said. “I couldn’t ask for a better life. ... I am happy to be alive.”