Former Army bomb tech rebuilds life after losing hearing, sight
By MELISSA NELSON GABRIEL | Pensacola News Journal (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 11, 2017
PENSACOLA, Fla. — Army Sgt. (ret.) Aaron Hale rendered one improvised explosive device safe. He was returning to gather evidence from the first bomb on Dec. 8, 2011, in Afghanistan, when a second undetected device blew.
The blast did not cause him to lose consciousness.
"I first thought my helmet was over my face. I started doing a systems check for my fingers and toes and then I tapped on my head and realized my helmet was gone," Hale said. "I knew something was really wrong with my eyes."
But the veteran military bomb tech and explosive ordnance disposal team leader was more worried about the safety of those around him and whether more undetected pressure-plate IEDs could go off and hurt those trying to help.
"I didn't want to put anyone else in danger because there could have been a tertiary device," he said.
Just 14 minutes after the blast, he was en route to a Kandahar medical station. Within 24 hours he was at a U.S. military medical hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. A day later, he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
The blast, which came from his right side, fused his eyelids together, perforated his eardrums and cracked his skull. Spinal fluid was leaking from his nose.
"I began to suspect that my eyesight was lost," Hale said.
After multiple surgeries, his suspicions were confirmed.
Hale's right eardrum never healed, but he was able to hear out of his left ear.
He slowly began to adapt to a life without sight.
"It is not about what you don't have, it's about the tools you do have in your kit — my creativity, my senses, my patience," he said.
He eventually returned to Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal School at Eglin Air Force Base where he instructed others on how to rid war zones of deadly bombs. His presence at the school was a sobering reminder of the seriousness of the job.
"The first thing we tell (students) is all of the ways any device can hurt them and what can set it off. The first thing I told them about was how this IED got me. It's not something I wanted to be machismo about," he said.
Hale started rebuilding his physical strength through running, climbing and kayaking. He ran marathons.
He reunited with a longtime family friend who later became his wife. The two started dating.
And then Hale became deathly ill.
He contracted bacterial meningitis likely related to his extensive facial and head injuries. It happened in 2015, four years after the blast that took his sight.
"Through the tons of antibiotics or the bacteria, my hearing was being erased," said Hale, who woke up in the hospital hearing only faint, muffled sounds.
He eventually lost 100 percent of his hearing.
His then-girlfriend, McKayla, stayed at his side, communicating with him by writing on his palm with her finger. She moved into his Destin-area home and helped him negotiate life without his hearing or sight.
Doctors thought Hale was a good candidate for a cochlear implant system to allow him to regain hearing. The surgical implants are attached to electrodes, which are inserted into the cochlea.
But Hale had to wait for his body to heal before he could undergo the implant surgery.
"It was an extremely sad time. For six months he was deaf and blind," McKayla said.
Hale didn't start his military career as an EOD technician, he was a Navy chef. Cooking was a longtime passion and he was good at it. He cooked for admirals and for entire chow halls.
He got interested in the EOD field while working as a Navy cook during his first deployment to Afghanistan after meeting EOD technicians at the chow hall. He asked the Navy to change career fields.
"They said my cooking was too good and they wouldn't let me go," he said laughing.
He finished his contract with Navy and joined the Army where he entered the EOD program, one of the military's most challenging career fields with one of the highest washout rates.
Cooking and bomb disposal actually have a lot of similarities, he said. Both require attention to detail and a need to improvise.
During the six months Hale was without his hearing and sight, he turned to cooking as therapy. But he couldn't use the tools he had used before he lost his hearing. He had a scan and bar-code system that helped him to identify items in the kitchen when he could hear.
Without his hearing, he turned to McKayla and their palm writing form of communication to help him move around the kitchen. It was during the holidays.
"I was sitting at the kitchen bar with literally nothing to do. I was in a wheelchair because I had lost my balance. I couldn't use my home gym. I was trapped in my own body," he said.
"I started thinking, when will I have paid my dues enough."
And then he started cooking.
"It was something I could still do. I started making fudge. I made so much fudge. It was something that gave me purpose, something I enjoyed doing," he said.
He made other holiday desserts, even the Thanksgiving turkey.
McKayla started giving the fudge and other candy to friends, family and people in the neighborhood. They started a small home business selling the fudge.
It gave Aaron a purpose and distraction, McKayla said.
Through a small grant from a veteran's program, they built their business. Aaron came up with the candy recipes in his test kitchen and another company produced and packaged the candy and sold it online. They named their company Extra Ordinary Delights — EOD.
In the meantime, doctors implanted the cochlear devices. Aaron waited for the devices to be turned on to find out if he would ever be able to hear again.
"I knew anything was better than being completely deaf and completely blind, I wanted to try it," he said.
The damage to his right ear was too extensive and the implant didn't work, but he regained some hearing in his left ear.
He uses a Bluetooth device that connects to a microphone to help him hear. The device also connects to his iPhone, which reads text messages and emails for him.
McKayla has her own microphone to communicate with her husband from anywhere in the house.
Aaron jokes that she is "the voice in my head."
"I can be anywhere and she will start talking to me, even in the bathroom," he laughed.
Like anything in life, the key to learning the implant system was learning to adapt and make use of his available assets, he said.
Despite the hurdles he has had to climb, Hale, who is now retired from the military, said he "has no regrets" about his decision to become a military bomb technician.
It is a dangerous but necessary job, he said.
"I hope one day we can get to a place where we don't have to be right on top of the devices, but right now there is nothing sophisticated enough. Right now, there is nothing compared to a well-trained EOD team leader," he said.